The conventional approach to solar power installations typically involves clearing land and placing solar panels on the leveled surface. However, this method can result in significant disruption to ecosystems. In order to promote a more sustainable and environmentally responsible approach, researchers from Colorado State University propose the use of ecovoltaics, which combines energy production with the preservation of ecosystem services.

Agriculture-photovoltaics, which involves the dual use of land for farming and solar installations, has already been recognized as a positive step towards sustainability. However, it tends to prioritize maximizing electricity production without considering potential benefits for plants and animals beneath the solar panels. Ecovoltaics takes a different approach by designing solar arrays that consider the needs of the ecosystem, especially in water-limited environments such as prairies.

The researchers draw inspiration from their work at Jack’s Solar Garden, the largest agrivoltaics research site in the United States. Here, they study how solar panels modify patterns of sunlight and alter rainfall distribution, creating unique microenvironments that support diversity within the solar installations. These microenvironments are essential to the concept of ecovoltaics.

One of the main advantages of ecovoltaics is its potential to restore highly degraded or abandoned agricultural land. These areas, which are ideal for large-scale solar installations, can simultaneously be transformed into habitats that enhance biodiversity while providing clean energy.

To further investigate the ecological impacts of solar panels, the researchers plan to establish a new research facility in a native prairie environment near the university campus. Through this initiative, they aim to better understand the effects of solar installations on arid and dry ecosystems as climate change intensifies in the future.

The research conducted by the team from Colorado State University aims to influence future solar installations by exploring principles that prioritize ecological sustainability. By adopting these principles, energy companies can contribute to both climate and land-use solutions. Through ecovoltaics, a more sustainable and ecologically informed future of solar energy becomes possible.

– Matthew A. Sturchio et al, “Ecovoltaic principles for a more sustainable, ecologically informed solar energy future,” Nature Ecology & Evolution (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-023-02174-x
– Colorado State University. “How can solar energy installations prioritize ecosystems?” (2023, September 19).