Researchers have produced the first detailed study of the impact of solar parks on the environment, opening the door to smarter forms of farming and better land management.

Environmental scientists at Lancaster University and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology monitored a large solar park, near Swindon, for a year. Their study showed that solar parks altered the local climate, measuring cooling of as much as 5 degrees centigrade under the panels during the summer. Effects varied, however, depending on the time of year and the time of day.

Scientist investigating effects of a solar farm on the local environmentEquipment investigating effects of solar farm on local environment

As climate controls biological processes, such as plant growth rates, information like this can help understand how best to manage solar parks so they have environmental benefits in addition to supplying low carbon energy.

Increasing energy demands and the drive towards low carbon energy sources have prompted a rapid increase in ground-mounted solar parks across the world. This means a significant land use change on a global scale and has prompted urgent calls for a detailed understanding of the impacts of solar parks on the fields beneath them.

Dr Jeanette Whitaker of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology said, "With an increasing global population we need to use land more efficiently to produce both food and energy. This research provides evidence of how solar farms affect plant growing conditions on UK farmland and can be used to develop dual land-use strategies so land can produce both low-carbon energy and support grazing or high value crops."

Dr Alona Armstrong, of Lancaster University, said the new study raised some key questions for the future.

She added, “With policies in dominant economies supporting solar energy, it is important that we understand the environmental impacts to ensure we get more than just low carbon energy from the land they occupy.”

A rapid increase in ground-mounted solar parks across the world...means a significant land use change on a global scale and has prompted urgent calls for a detailed understanding of the impacts of solar parks on the fields beneath them.

The authors of the study said understanding the climate effects of solar parks will give farmers and land managers the knowledge they need to choose which crops to grow and how best to manage the land; there is potential to maximise biodiversity and improve yields.

Dr Armstrong said, “This understanding becomes even more compelling when applied to areas that are very sunny that may also suffer water shortages. The shade under the panels may allow crops to be grown that can’t survive in full sun.  Also, water losses may be reduced and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation.”

The paper, "Solar park microclimate and vegetation management effects on grassland carbon cycling", is published open access in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Additional information

Lancaster University issued a press release for this story.

Staff page of Dr Jeanette Whitaker, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Full paper reference: Alona Armstrong, Nicholas J Ostle and Jeanette Whitaker. 2016. Solar park microclimate and vegetation management effects on grassland carbon cycling. Environmental Research Letters, doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/11/7/074016

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