Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services: a Framework for Best-Practice (SPIES)

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Environment

Abstract

Ensuring there is sufficient energy is a global challenge, caused by increasing demand and the need to move to low carbon energy to avoid dangerous climate change. Photovoltaics, including those mounted on buildings and the ground, are predicted to provide a key component of energy in the future, with the recent US Clean Power Plan and policies in China and Japan placing particular emphasis on solar power. Further, solar energy is increasingly cost competitive, with large scale solar park costs now similar to that of conventional energy sources.

Within the UK, 47 % of solar photovoltaics are ground-mounted as solar parks. There has been a shift towards ground-mounted solar parks in countries within 35 degrees of the equator and a shift toward large-scale ground-mounted systems in Europe is anticipated. Solar parks take up a relatively large area of land for the energy they produce compared with conventional sources of energy. Yet, despite the expanding land area occupied by solar parks little is known of the impacts of their construction, physical presence and management on the landscape, or how we can use the opportunities provided by this land use transition to bring additional benefits, such as enhanced green infrastructure and ecological connectivity.

Alongside switching to low carbon energy sources, in the light of growing populations and heightened pressures on resources, it is becoming increasingly recognised that we need to protect our environment, since it provides many goods (e.g. crops) and services (e.g. carbon storage) that contribute to the wellbeing and economic prosperity of society. The increasing land cover of solar parks presents an excellent opportunity to maximise the provisioning of such goods and services, with management options relatively low cost compared with those related to solar park construction. Therefore, this project will develop a decision-support tool to assess the impacts of solar parks, including their construction, physical presence and management, on the goods and services the landscape provides. There are five key components:
1. Synthesis of existing solar park guidelines;
2. Production of a compendium of the beneficial and detrimental effects of solar parks on goods and services supplied by the landscape;
3. Quantification of the change in goods and services over the operational life-time of solar parks;
4. Development of a decision-support tool that promotes the optimal deployment and management of solar parks;
5. Dissemination of the outcomes of the project to the broader solar development community.

There are 11 project partners, covering all solar park stakeholders: Christine Coonick, National Solar Centre; Ed Jessamine, Novus Solar; Nick White, Natural England; Jonathan Scurlock, National Farmers Union; Jon Abbatt, ADAS; Richard Winspear, RSPB; Melanie Dodd, Wiltshire Council; Adam Twine, Colleymore Farm; James Ryle, Good Energy; and Phillip Duncan, Corylus.

The key output from the project is the SPIES (Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services) decision-support tool, which will provide a standardised means of identifying the best way to install and manage solar parks. Thus the tool will be useful for developers, consultees and regulatory agencies and may reduce prolonged and expensive planning applications, which will be beneficial to all parties. The National Solar Centre will help us drive the tool into policy which would lead to a noteworthy sustained contribution to sustainable energy generation and the supply of goods and services from the landscape. Further, given the global proliferation of solar parks and the growing global awareness of the importance of our natural environment, the proposed tool could help to stimulate innovation in business and investment opportunities, and build the UK's reputation as a global leader in solar park deployment.

Keywords: solar parks, low carbon energy, ecosystem services, green infrastructure

Planned Impact

The outputs of this GIIP will be of benefit to all types of solar park stakeholders. While contrasting viewpoints can exist between them, for example planning officers and developers, discussions during the development of this proposal showed that they are all driven by an ethos to ensure sustainable deployment of solar parks (see letters of support). It is not only the project partners that will benefit but all those involved in the solar park industry as the outputs are designed to be applicable across the UK. Further, given the global spread of solar parks and the growing global concern regarding ES, the outputs may also provide a framework for UK solar park stakeholders operating overseas. Further, given the wellbeing and economic prosperity of society is underpinned by ecosystems, the enhanced ES provision at solar parks will be of benefit to society more broadly. In addition to the specific remit of this project, the project partners will also benefit through interactions with each other and further enhance the connectivity between NERC-funded scientists at Lancaster University and the University of York and science end-users (see letters of support).

We anticipate the following outcomes:
1. Enhancement of ES of solar park GI;
2. Positioning of the decision support tool to enable its inclusion into policy;
3. A motivated multi-sector network driven to ensure that solar parks are optimally deployed and managed for the optimal balance of ES;
4. Enhanced connections and transfer of research between NERC-funded scientists and end-users;
5. Positioning of the UK solar industry at the forefront of solar park deployment and management.

The pathway from innovation through to outputs to outcomes is clear for this project and the co-production of the knowledge base and decision support tool by the key players in the solar industry will ensure the outputs are fit for purpose. The calibre, range and enthusiasm of the partners, along with Solar Power Portal (a trusted online solar media outlet, www.solarpowerportal.co.uk) wishing to run a story on the project, demonstrates the critical need for the project and the likelihood of it becoming embedded in practice. The potential for the decision-support tool to be embedded in the planning process is demonstrated by the Scottish Executive-funded wind farm carbon payback calculator (it has to be completed as part of the planning process for every peatland wind farm). BRE, within which the National Solar Centre is embedded, is a strong proponent of embedding decision-making tools within legislation and will help drive the inclusion of the decision-support tool produced in this GIIP into legislation (see letter of support). This would be an outstanding outcome of this project and lead to noteworthy and sustained NERC science impact generation. This, coupled with the anticipated increase in solar parks, will not only drive the success of this project but enable long-term sustainability, future updates and improvements. Involvement of the National Solar Centre and the Solar Trade Association, as advice centres and industry bodies, will facilitate the longevity of the knowledge base and decision-support tool. Further, given the global proliferation of solar parks and the growing global awareness of the importance of our GI, ES and natural capital resources, the proposed tool could help to build the UK's reputation as a leader in solar park deployment across the world. Finally, it will also identify remaining knowledge gaps to allow both the stakeholder and academic community to target future research and innovation efforts.

Publications

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Title SPIES animation 
Description The animation describes the SPIES project. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact It prompted interested in our research from an overseas company 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6jkGsqmy8k
 
Description We have developed a decision support tool to promote the enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services on solar parks. The tool has two roles: (1) to enable solar park developers or operations and management companies to understand how they can manage parks better to promote biodiversity and ecosystem services, and (2) for local authorities and conservation bodies to use to provide evidence-based recommendations of how management of the sites should be carried out, and hence form part of planning and development decisions. The tool can be downloaded from the project website at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/spies/
Exploitation Route We are currently working with partners to determine how the tool can be incorporated into the planning process, or applied more generally to assist with management decisions to enhance biodiversity and obtain environmental gains.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Transport

URL http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/spies/
 
Description British Council link award to Alona Armstrong
Amount £2,000 (GBP)
Organisation British Council 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2016 
End 11/2016
 
Description Innovation Follow on
Amount £125,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R009449/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2018 
End 08/2020
 
Description House of Commons launch 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact This was a launch at the House of Commons for the Solar Trade Association's Natural Capital Value of Solar report, to which we contributed content, and also gave a presentation at the launch. The report is here: https://www.solar-trade.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/The-Natural-Capital-Value-of-Solar.pdf
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description IEMA webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a webinar to explain the Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services (SPIES) decision support tool, which provides an accessible, evidence-based assessment of the impacts of solar park management on biodiversity, natural capital and ecosystem services for the UK solar industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.iema.net/event-reports/
 
Description Natural Capital Value of Solar workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a professional event organised by the Solar Trade Association
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Stakeholder solar park event 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Westmill Sustainable Energy Trust Solar Energy and Biodiversity event with talks from Natoinal Farmers Union, Solar Trade Association, Wychwood Biodiversity, Community Solar Park representatives and others. We present our beta decision support tool and the feedback was very positive and prompted us to apply for the second grant
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact I was invited to present at the Solar Media 'Managing European Solar Assets' conference which was attended by all those in the solar industry, including asset managers, operation & maintence companies, those in the financial sector, and developers. The purpose was to highlight the work we were doing. From the event we developed our understanding of the industry and made a connection who became a partner on our subsequent grant
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description discussion with STA 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We presented our research at the Solar Trade Association Operation and Maintenance Working Group. There was significant interest, it highlighted our work and enabled us to secure them as partners on our next grant which will ultimately help us stimulate uptake of our decision support tool
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017