According to solar market research specialists NPD Solarbuzz, as of the end of April, there were more than 325 completed megawatt (MW) class farms in the UK, over 60 of which have installed capacity in excess of 10MW - and there are more to come. Approval has recently been given to 124 new projects, with many of those looking to be completed before the level of Renewable Obligation subsidies is reduced in April 2015, according to the company's latest 'UK Deal Tracker' report, while a further 320 are currently in some stage of the planning process.
Over the last 50 years, much of Britain's native flora and fauna has experienced significant decline, with habitat loss almost invariably topping the list of major causes.
Solar farms, however, might be one development which bucks that trend, by providing valuable new living space for many species in the vast tracts of unused ground that lie around the photo-voltaic installations themselves. At most solar farms, the PV units are set on piles and normally the panels only over-shadow between 25 and 40% of the ground, which leaves more than 95% of land used for a solar farm development accessible for planting and potential wildlife enhancement schemes.
Collaborative projects to put this to the test are already well underway.
Solarcentury and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT) joined together in 2013 to promote the development of bee-friendly environments by creating biodiverse spaces in and around the company's energy facilities. With bumblebee numbers having crashed - and two species having disappeared entirely - over the last hundred years, the variety of dry and wet, sunny and shaded microhabitats that properly planned, planted and managed solar farms can provide, could help play a vital role in their long-term survival.
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According to BBCT's conservation manager Gill Perkins, like so many other species, the plight of the bees is largely down to habitat loss.
"There are other reasons - climate change, pesticides, lack of nesting or hibernation sites, obviously have an effect - but we lost 97% of our wildflower meadows after the Second World War. Habitat loss is the key driver for decline," she says.
Now, the collaboration with Solarcentury provides a way to begin reversing that loss, as the company's chief marketing officer Susannah Wood explains. "The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is monitoring a number of the solar farm sites where we are building. They visited the sites last year to record the base lines and will re-visit them once or twice each year for the next few years now that the fields have been seeded."
Wood says that they have deliberately taken this independent and scientific approach to provide a properly objective measure of the environmental impact of the energy facilities. "Biodiversity is a consideration at every solar farm we develop and we monitor long term to ensure we're creating ecological gain and making a positive impact on local wildlife," she says.
Last year alone, Solarcentury planted 53,000 hedgerow plants and created 140 hectares of wildflowers and unimproved grasslands - habitats which, in addition to benefitting wildlife, also help increase the amount of carbon saved on-site.
Although their project is principally focused on wildflowers and bumblebees, the long-term goal of the industry is to see solar farms actively boosting biodiversity in the widest sense. To that end, BRE National Solar Centre has launched its Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments and the Solar Trade Association has produced ten best practice commitments for the responsible development of solar farms.
As the BBCT's Perkins explains, these guides represent the collective knowledge and consensus of most of the UK's leading wildlife charities and industry players, and should help overcome the inherent difficulties in attempting to meet the, at times conflicting, needs of many disparate kinds of plants and animals.
"We're trying to make biodiversity as wide as possible, for as many species as possible. That's always been difficult in the farming and land management world. What we've tried to do through the Solar Trades Association and BRE is to come together as a group - which we did very successfully - put all our needs into one pot, and then produce something for potential solar farms that will work for all of us," Perkins says.
No generation implications
Importantly from the operator's point of view, Wood says that biodiversity measures do not impact on a solar farm's energy generation, and there are seemingly few operational, management or commercial implications to being wildlife-friendly.
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"Not many compromises, other than keeping sunlight on the panels involves keeping grass and surrounding hedges and trees to a certain height," agrees Steve Webb of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. The Trust recently formed a community benefit society to develop their own solar installation on a parcel of brownfield land they own beside an industrial estate, and which will, of course, be sympathetically run to boost the site's biodiversity. He says that managing the land will not call for anything other than the normal sorts of techniques for wildflower meadows, with conventional machinery used between the rows and either low-intensity grazing by sheep or strimming underneath the panels.
More to come
The fit between green energy and wildlife conservation seems perfect, and perhaps the proof is that there are plenty more projects to come. BBCT are working on a number of proposed sites for Solarcentury and Steve Webb says that Witlshire Wildlife Community Energy are planning a 5MW project just to the west of Swindon and two larger ones - 8MW and 10MW - after that. He is also talking with Dorset Wildlife Trust about a 5MW scheme near Bournemouth and he says that various other trusts are showing an interest in the concept too.
Ultimately, only time will tell how effective solar farms prove to be in bolstering British biodiversity; as Gill Perkins says, the monitoring is key - but if it does all go according to plan, the UK's future energy mix could end up looking very green indeed.