Several woodland owners have put solar panels in clearings or next to their woodlands and they wonder what effect these man-made structures have on nature. There is also general discussion as to whether open field solar arrays (or solar parks) are good or bad for wildlife. Of course, in the big scheme of things - renewable energy is certainly good for the wider environment to the extent that it reduces carbon emissions by substituting green energy for fossil-fuel-based electricity.
It now seems that many of the earlier fears about the impact of solar panels were unfounded. They don't seem to create a water-like surface which attracts aquatic invertebrates away from water and they don't seem to lead bats and birds to crash into the shiny surfaces mistaking these for water. The research suggests that birds and bats see panels as they would other flat surfaces that we introduce into the environment such as glass or concrete in buildings.
Aside from the findings that solar panels seem not to cause damage to small animals, they do have some biodiversity benefits in that they create micro-climates underneath the arrays; and, in practice, a herb layer builds up below the panels. This allows a variety of pant growth and creates shelter for invertebrates, small mammals and reptiles. In some solar parks, the grass is grazed by sheep which avoids vegetation growing over the panels. Even here there are still plenty of sections which the sheep don't graze, so that biodiversity is much increased (compared to use of the land as an arable field). Panels are less than 20% efficient and there are many gaps between them so that a solar park can also be a sheep grazing area and something of a nature reserve. Sheep seem to like using the panels for shelter from wind and rain.
In the future, tensions may emerge if owners of solar parks decide they want to kill the grass by spraying it or if new panels are developed which cover more of the ground and are in effect three-dimensional. These panels, which are now under development, are much more efficient than the flat surfaces which are currently used: they allow the light into a prism and the energy is absorbed as the light bounces around inside. In principle, these new 3-D panels might be developed so that the area underneath becomes very dark. like the floor of an unthinned conifer forest, where there is much reduced plant and animal life. But for now, using today's technology and practices, solar panels seem to be fairly positive for biodiversity.
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