Published on June 1st, 2010 | by Susan Kraemer1
NREL to See if Solar and Deserts Can Get Along
To test to see how desert ecosystems can get along with industrial-scale solar installations, NREL scientists have re-seeded native grasses under one half of the 1 MW solar installation at their National Renewable Energy Laboratory site near Boulder, Colorado.
Boulder’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory scientists and environmental experts are developing best management practices that re-establish habitat, minimize weed invasion, prevent erosion and protect wildlife.
With this study, the scientists are hoping to establish some guidelines that will enable clean solar power and desert habitats to coexist amiably. Many solar projects in the Southwest, where solar is ideal, are furloughed by two and three year delays over environmental reviews.
Some of the controversy revolves around the grading of the land. Typically, solar companies propose to grade the land under utility-scale solar arrays, treat it with pesticides, or cover it with gravel. NREL wants to see if an alternative is possible.
For the test, an independent botanist will establish one acre of test plots beneath solar panels, as well as two control plots on similar land away from the solar panels. Data from the test plots will be used to evaluate vegetation success under varying conditions of moisture, seed mixes, mulching, and other treatments.
Crews will manually reseed graded areas under the solar panels in early spring with a blend of native grasses. At the Colorado site currently most of the vegetation is native shortgrass prairie including big bluestem, blue gramma, and various wheat grasses.
The seed blend will be formulated to include native plants that can tolerate some shading, can help curtail erosion and weed invasion, and can be somewhat fire-resistant.
The lessons learned should help PV companies, state regulatory agencies and utilities speed up environmental reviews.
Hopefully the results will establish clear guidelines. A good working relationship needs to be established between desert wildlife and renewable energy in order to move forward with clean power, so we can get on with preventing catastrophic climate change.