The New Solar Farm Is a Real Farm, Too

The next generation of solar arrays benefits the earth — right beneath them.

When Randolph County’s $242 million Riverstart Solar Park is completed in 2022, it will be Indiana’s biggest. Thousands of photovoltaic panels covering 1,400 acres of rural land will generate enough clean electricity to power 36,000 homes.

Massive solar farms like this can be a touchy subject with locals. So, in the lead-up to the project’s approval, county legislators ensured the developer would be a good neighbor, with measures to avoid glare from the panels and mandated setbacks from roads and highways. And then they took it one step further, requiring the planting of pollinator-friendly plants like wildflowers and clover, in addition to native grasses. It was the first such mandate in state history.

A Minnesota solar site uses a diverse mix of pollinator-friendly native flowers and grasses, and is co-located with a collection of beehives. Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

The requirement will ensure that Riverstart will benefit the very land it is situated on — a very different approach from the way solar farms have historically been conceived and built. Typically, U.S. solar projects are built on marginal lands or farmland, with panels mounted on ground covered with gravel or turf. It’s a farm in name only, an ecological dead zone, despite the clean energy benefits. But as the ordinance for Riverstart shows, this is changing, and solar farms are increasingly being seen as more than just a means to generate clean energy.

Riverstart’s design takes into account the health of bee populations, which is critical because we rely on pollinators to fertilize our food plants — everything from apples to almonds, blueberries to squash. Bees are in decline in many parts of the world. Fruit trees on some Chinese farms are now pollinated by feather-wielding humans, and just last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded a grant exploring the use of drones to pollinate fruit crops in Washington State. For Randolph County, about 80 miles northeast of Indianapolis, the ordinance approval comes at a time when Indiana’s native pollinator species have declined below the number needed to pollinate crops, with honey bee colonies in some areas facing collapse.

The vegetation required at the Indiana array will be low maintenance and aesthetically pleasing. Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

“It will help the bees, which are under attack,” said Michael Wickersham, one of the three Randolph County commissioners who approved the zoning ordinance and notes that the required vegetation will be low maintenance (no mowing) and aesthetically pleasing. “Adding the pollinator [plants] back into the ground is nothing but a win-win.”

It’s not just megaprojects like Riverstart that are embracing new solar farm designs that benefit the local environment. Dave Gahl, Senior Director of Northeast State Affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, the national trade association for the U.S. solar industry, says growing native plants and pollinators on solar farms is a nationwide trend for “community solar projects” — smaller solar arrays (less than five megawatts) typically built on leased farmland. By comparison, a big commercial project like Riverstart will be designed to generate up to 200 megawatts.

The very act of taking plots of farmland out of production for the typical 20 to 30 year lifespan of a solar project rejuvenates top soil degraded by annual cropping and chemical applications. This speaks to the reality that solar farms are often temporary, which only bolsters the notion that they should maintain the health of the land they’re situated on.

Solar farms with plants can also become fodder for “solar grazers,” like at the Nexamp community solar project in Newfield, New York, where about 150 sheep are “deployed”  to prevent plants from growing tall and interfering with the solar panels. Fencing keeps predators out, while the panels themselves shelter the sheep from sun and storms.

solar sheep
Sheep can benefit from — and help maintain — a solar farm. Credit: Solar Trade Association

Gahl says solar companies will sometimes enter into agreements with local farmers to allow sheep herds to graze the vegetation around the solar panels, providing another income stream for the farmer who is leasing the land to the solar farm. Such natural grazing also encourages grass regrowth, increases manure nutrients to the soil, and avoids the costs and pollution of mowing.

Meanwhile, new approaches are promising to expand the species of plants that can be grown at solar sites. The U.S. Department of Energy is experimenting with “agrivoltaics” — for example, raising solar panels higher off the ground to enable food crops to be grown in the shade underneath. In the summer heat of a place like Arizona, peppers and tomatoes can be shaded from the scorching sun by the panels, which then retain heat and boost the crops’ growth during the cooler evenings.

“Agrivoltaics” raise solar panels higher off the ground to enable food crops to be grown in the shade underneath. Credit: National Renewable Energy Lab

This co-existence of solar farming and food farming could just be getting started as solar farms become more sophisticated. Some newer solar panels can move, following the sun across the sky, generating up to 20 percent more electricity than conventional designs. To enable the panels to move, however, more space is needed between them, which opens up space for food crops to absorb sunlight alongside the solar panels.

Moving forward, solar farms could play a role in food security, as well. With big utility-scale solar farms alone predicted to cover almost two million acres of land in the U.S. by 2030, a huge opportunity is on the horizon to support pollinators, improve soil health, nurture biodiversity, produce food and, not least, slash emissions, all at the same time.

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and oceans. He is the author of "The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam." Follow him on Twitter @C_Pollon

India’s Amazing Art Hub

Not long ago I ended up at a biennial in Kochi, a little Indian city with a thriving art scene. Could this be a place where artists can make a living?

In mid-December, right after my year-long music tour ended, I decided to stay in motion. I headed to Kochi, a city in the South Indian state of Kerala, where an art biennial was about to open.

I had no idea what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the artists were names I’d never heard of, and that with a few exceptions, most of them came from the southern hemisphere. This was art that was not being made for me or my ilk, though some of it I liked very much. And though some of the artists have indeed shown internationally, none of the big art stars that often dominate these types of events were represented.

I took this as a sign that Kerala was cultivating an arts scene that is not only creatively vibrant, but that Indian cities might be able to financially support creativity enough so that artists there can make a living and not be forced to head north. The gatekeepers of the art world have traditionally resided in places like New York, London, Berlin, Hong Kong and Miami. But what if what is happening in Kerala is an example of a wider trend?

Kochi is on the tip of a peninsula, a bit like a small version of San Francisco. Across the bay are tall offices and a city that sprawls for miles, but Kochi has preserved much of its historical architecture. Here’s a school group that was taking the ferry here from the mainland for an afternoon outing—my new bike pals. (I had a bike too, of course.)

What stood out for me?

I loved the embroideries by artist Bapi Das, based out of Kolkata, where he works part-time as a rickshaw driver. The embroideries often feature the view from the rickshaw…but heightened, edited, filtered. Many of them are left on the frame where they are made.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Bapi Das)

Chitra Ganesh is an artist based in a multicultural city named Brooklyn. She references Indian mythological comics (I picked some up at a local temple — photo below) but she takes that genre someplace else.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Chitra Ganesh)

Below is a piece by South African artist Sue Williamson. She made t-shirts printed with the bills of sale of enslaved people, including children, from Malabar Coast, the part of India I was in. After many washings the printed images fade away, which is the artist’s intention… a sort of “truth and reconciliation” via t-shirts.

Credit: David Byrne (photo of art by Sue Williamson)

So, Kochi, though not a strong art market itself, might serve as a showcase that helps Indian and other artists to be seen, and encourage the other parts of that ecology⁠—the galleries, collectors, institutions, government⁠—that are based more often in larger Indian cities to appreciate what is happening on the subcontinent.

David Byrne is the founder of Reasons to be Cheerful.

Spain’s Happy Little Carless City

Pontevedra, once choked with cars, is a laboratory for how smaller cities can implement a few simple tricks to reduce driving dramatically.

Credit: juantiagues/Flickr

Wherever you find advocates for saner transportation, their dream scenario usually hinges on the same outcome: making cities blissfully free of cars.

To this end, the Spanish city of Pontevedra, population 84,000, has done something remarkable: it has reduced car use in its historic core by 90 percent, and citywide by half. And it has done it without blanket fees or bans, instead using clever engineering and some gentle nudging to get people out of their cars and onto the street. For smaller cities that want to tap the brakes on car usage, Pontevedra offers a masterclass in tactical de-vehicularization.

Lesson #1: Build Streets That Lead Nowhere

The sheer number of liberties Pontevedra has taken with its streets is exhilarating. For instance, many streets are designed as loops, making it impossible to use them to drive from one end of the city to the other. This solved a major problem—before the redesign, some streets were choked with nearly 30,000 cars a day, most of them simply passing through. Now, Lores told Citiscope, “If you enter by the south, you leave by the south.”

Pontevedra before it was redesigned for pedestrians. Credit: Council of Pontevedra

Lesson #2: Make Double Parking Impossible

Pontevedra didn’t eliminate parking. In fact, in some places, parking is actually free—but only for 15 minutes. This ensures quick pickups and drop-offs by taxis and delivery trucks. And because most streets are a single lane wide, there’s simply nowhere for those trucks and taxis to double park, forcing them to use the limited number of designated pull-off spaces for their stops.

Lesson #3: Accommodate Cars… Somewhere Else

Calls for car-free cities can sometimes sound like a call to end driving entirely—a lovely fantasy, but one that’s unlikely to materialize anytime soon. With that in mind, Pontevedra does something controversial: it provides over 1,600 free parking spaces along its perimeter so that drivers can leave their cars there and enter without them.

Pontevedra today. Credit: Council of Pontevedra


Some drivers have complained that this causes traffic jams at the city’s edge. And the very concept of providing 1,600 free parking spaces (wherever they may be) is anathema to many urbanists. Still, the tactic has helped to keep cars off of Pontevedra’s streets, and since the entire city is small enough to be traversed on foot in 25 minutes, most visitors simply walk right in.

Will Doig is co-editor of Reasons to be Cheerful.

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