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Environmental Science

Modeling a More Sustainable Energy Future

EVS ecosystem services models inform planning for sustainable solar energy developments in the Midwest, and to address needs for food production and biodiversity protection.

Solar power is more affordable, accessible, and prevalent in the United States than ever before: U.S. installations have capacity to power the equivalent of 12 million American homes at steadily declining costs. Over the past 10 years, utility-scale photovoltaic energy technologies have increased exponentially in the United States: from less than 1 GW of electrical production in 2010 to over 35 GW of electricity by 2020. Solar energy currently provides about 2% of total U.S. electricity production, and this form of renewable energy development is expected to continue to increase over the coming decades. Argonne scientists are working to make such development sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Many ground-based solar facilities in the United States are sited on agricultural land. The flat, open, and relatively undeveloped nature of agricultural lands make them ideal sites for solar development. However, developing farmland for solar energy production requires consideration of the tradeoffs between food production and renewable energy production, as well as the potential effects on surrounding ecosystem services — the benefits to humans provided by the natural environment and healthy ecosystems. But what if we didn’t have to make such a tradeoff? What if we could generate solar energy in synergy with food production, biodiversity conservation, and enhanced ecosystem services?

In the United States, scientists have run with this idea using a vegetation management approach, establishing native, pollinator-friendly vegetation either among solar photovoltaic arrays or elsewhere within the facility footprint (“solar-pollinator habitat”). This vegetation attracts and supports native insect pollinators. Earlier research in EVS revealed that more than 3,500 km2 of agricultural land near existing U.S. solar energy facilities can benefit from the increased pollination services provided by insects utilizing solar-pollinator habitat. This work demonstrated that the potential for benefits to nearby agriculture from solar-pollinator habitat are quite substantial,” said Lee Walston, one of the lead EVS researchers.

Pollinator habitat at a solar facility in Minnesota. [Source: Leroy Walston, Argonne National Laboratory]

In a study published in February 2021, the Argonne team applied a spatially explicit modeling framework to investigate the potential outcomes of four ecosystem services — carbon storage, pollinator supply, sediment retention, and water retention — to native grassland habitat restoration at 30 solar facilities across the U.S. Midwest. Our goal in this study was to understand how solar energy developments co-located with pollinator-friendly native vegetation may improve ecosystem services compared to other traditional land uses,” Walston said. The study found that, compared to traditional agricultural land uses, solar facilities with sitewide co‑located pollinator‑friendly vegetation produced a three-fold increase in pollinator habitat quality and a 65% increase in carbon storage potential. The models also showed that solar-pollinator habitat increased the site’s potential to control sedimentation and runoff by more than 95% and 19%, respectively. In regions where native grasslands have been lost to farming and other activities, therefore, this study suggests that native grassland restoration at solar energy facilities could represent a win‑win for energy and the environment. This study demonstrates how the creation of sustainable multifunctional landscapes can help improve the environmental compatibility of renewable energy production,” Walston said.