In California, a creative solar project in a shut-down nuclear power facility has found a solution to the climate and biodiversity challenges.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) and the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) announced on Thursday that they would restore native prairie, habitat for pollinators beneath it, and roughly 160 megawatts (MW) of solar panels.
According to Jessica Fox, a conservation biologist and senior technical executive at EPRI, “The Rancho Seco project is a unique cooperation at the crossroads of communities, biodiversity, and climate-friendly electricity.” The successful demonstration could serve as a model for future renewable energy projects around the nation that are beneficial for local communities and wildlife in addition to their kilowatt output.
The new project is an illustration of agrivoltaics, an emerging technology that combines solar farms and traditional farming.
It can involve anything from growing edible crops underneath solar panels to employing solar arrays to give agricultural land a break and let the soil recover, as detailed by Clean Technica. The California initiative uses the area underneath solar panels to recreate bee habitat, which is one of the first forms of agrivoltaic applications.
This is a very significant objective since, as PV Magazine noted, over 35% of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators like bees and butterflies. Scientists have warned about an impending insect apocalypse as a result of human activities, which has brought insect populations to the verge of extinction.
The California project serves as numerous restoration examples. It is situated where the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant once stood. According to CleanTechnica, this plant was closed in 1989 following a number of alarming incidents. The 2,000-acre location is now a sanctuary for wildlife and many forms of energy.
According to PV Magazine, it is home to the Cosumnes Power Plant, a gas-powered facility. However, the plant site also features a nature reserve that provides habitat for the California Tiger Salamander, which is protected by the federal government.
The Rancho Seco Solar II project was later added in February 2021. Through a contract with SMUD, D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments manages this 160 MW solar installation.
According to the news release, the agrivoltaics project would restore the prairie on a 20-acre portion of the Rancho Seco site, both below the solar panels and in other areas. EPRI, SMUD, the University of California, Davis, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, D.E. Shaw Renewable Investments, and NovaSource Power are working together on the project.
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Over the course of four years, the project will be implemented in phases, with measurements of energy changes, management costs, and soil carbon storage included. Additionally, it will support SMUD’s 2030 Zero Carbon Plan.
According to Kathleen Ave, senior climate and ecosystem strategist for SMUD and co-chair of its Power-In-Pollinators initiative, “we are excited for this project to consider multiple levels of energy including solar power, the energy needs of the biological ecosystem, and the restoration of cultural energy for our communities.”
EPRI started the Power-In-Pollinators campaign in 2018 to educate power companies about pollinators. In North America, it is the biggest partnership of its sort.
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According to CleanTechnica, agrivoltaics projects like this one have the ability to bridge the gap between solar entrepreneurs and rural residents, who are less likely to have access to solar energy and have recently grown more skeptical of it.
Rebecca R. Hernandez, an associate professor at UC Davis and the director of the Wild Energy Center, stated in the press release that “we’re attempting to create a model that other solar producers can follow.” This is a chance to start restoring 98% of lost grassland habitat in California while also stacking the prairie with solar energy.