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Monarch Conservation Spotlight: Fresh Energy

Oct 25, 2021


  • Monarch Conservation Spotlight

Photo credits for this article: Monarch Joint Venture/Laura Lukens

One thing that makes the iconic monarch butterfly an extraordinary insect is that their migration and population span a large geographical area and touch the lives of people across North America and beyond. To support their lifecycle they require different habitats, resources, and conservation practices across this expansive range. This creates opportunities for you and others to be a piece of this conservation puzzle and focus on improving a mixture of habitats for this imperiled insect.

In celebration of the 20th Anniversary of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign (NAPPC) and all of the diverse and critical work that goes into conserving pollinators, the Monarch Joint Venture Communications Working Group and NAPPC Monarch Task Force is bringing you the “Monarch Conservation Spotlight” series. The purpose of the series is to     highlight some of the impactful projects, programs and organizations working hard to address the declining trend across North American monarch populations and bring you information and resources about how you can get involved. Join us to learn more.

This month we interviewed Rob Davis from Fresh Energy about their work in creating productive pollinator habitat in solar fields.

Fresh Energy is a Minnesota based organization working to provide clear pathways to a clean energy economy through policy, science and education. There is great opportunity to provide quality habitat under solar panel fields, something other than bare ground or grass, and are working with conservation organizations, landowners, and industry to help make that vision a reality. “In our view, acres of milkweed and flowering meadows are a productive use of the land under and around solar projects,” Rob says. Their primary goal of Fresh Energy’s work in this is to accelerate the clean energy transition and create more benefits for rural communities in the process. Rob went on to say that the US is in the middle of transition to clean energy, and will build an additional 9-10 million acres of solar farms by 2050, on top of the current 400 to 500 thousand there are currently. Rob notes that large solar farms help to make solar panels cheaper, which brings down production costs for home solar projects.

The folks at Fresh Energy realized early on that any time there is a transition to something new, there is also a lot of uncertainty and doubt. They wanted to provide some education about the benefits of solar as well as debunking some misconceptions, and make solar more accessible, and so built their educational programming and outreach around that. Some of their messaging has included ways that solar farms provide the means for financing a meadow and that creating both habitat and clean energy can also make it easier for people to like solar fields more (or at least hate them less).

Using the productive farmland that farmers are leasing to solar projects for conservation is a scalable and replicable solution to balance community needs for local benefits (such as water quality, better crop yields and a visually aesthetic landscape) with the global needs for clean energy and carbon reduction. Increasing local pollinator populations through the newly restored habitat is helpful for soybeans and other crops; solar planted with appropriate native plants can be something mutually beneficial to the neighbors, the landowner, and pollinators.

Because of Fresh Energy’s outreach, education and policiy recommendation work, more than a dozen states in the US have published or established standards as to what constitutes pollinator friendly habitat on solar farms. Seven states have passed laws encouraging the practice of pollinator friendly solar farms. Minnesota was the first to establish a flexible science-based standard for ground cover and this has been replicated and then adopted in 6 states and inspired standards in several more.  Fresh Energy is also doing outreach and education to utility companies and corporations to help them have the tools they need to ask about and include conservation in their procurement of clean energy. For example, Xcel Energies is building a solar farm in Becker, MN, which will include pollinator friendly groundcover.

When asked what the biggest challenge of this work is, Rob replied that it is a challenge “any time you’re trying to change the status quo with anything.” So, helping people understand that pairing conservation with clean energy is a win-win scenario, worthwhile and meaningful, is at the center of their educational message. This requires a lot of persistence because it’s not just about disrupting the status quo or changing how the projects are built. It is also about what it means to go solar. “Does it mean they’re just getting a solar electron [panel], or trying to do more to get natural capital – what’s the intention behind their decision to go solar?” Rob asks. Once the new norm of building solar is established, there is an added layer of creating a new norm for providing deep-rooted flowering plants, a conservation impact for the local ecosystem. “Solar was developed in the desert-southwest, so the norms began with that landscape in mind,” he says. “A lot of the civil engineers that build [solar] plants have no experience with natural capital in areas that get 40 inches of rain annually with productive soils.”

One thing Rob says he wished more people knew is that it’s safe to ask for clean energy with conservation; consumer and corporate demand and interest drive innovation. “When companies, communities, and universities ask for clean energy paired with conservation, that’s what gets built. But when they only ask for clean energy, that’s all they get.” He continues, “The win-win-win scenarios can be hard to find in the divisive world we live in, but hold on to them. People are so used to thinking that it’s a zero-sum game, but this situation – clean energy paired with conservation – is one where wins happen on all sides. Including habitat with solar improves the function of the solar panels and it’s worth asking for.

To learn more about the work Fresh Energy does, visit Rob also did a TedEx talk titled “This Unlikely 1960s Space Technology can Help Save the Bees”, which you can watch here. Rob also presented a webinar on this topic for the Monarch Conservation Webinar Series, which you can watch here.

Alone no individual or entity can address all monarch conservation needs, but through collaborative conservation we can and will make a difference for monarchs and more. Keep following our “Monarchs Conservation Spotlight” series to hear more inspiring monarch conservation stories.

Postscript: Prompted by an early retirement that resulted in an opening, Rob Davis joined the nonprofit energy cooperative Connexus Energy in July 2021 and continues to be a champion for solar projects that allow for dual-uses and provide co-benefits. Follow him on Twitter @Robfargo.