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Your solar and biodiversity questions answered

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31 Aug 2022

Our mission is to end fossil fuels – and we’re tackling it through lots of different methods. We’ve been inviting your questions, and have had lots of emails asking about our approach to solar power as well as the impact of our green energy parks on biodiversity.

We caught up with Simon Pickering, Ecotricity’s Principal Ecologist, to answer your questions.

How is the land used underneath and between solar panels, as this seems wasted?

Our solar farms give us an opportunity to both combat climate change and boost biodiversity in local areas, restoring wildflower meadows to help pollinators, insects, birds and mammals thrive.

Just a small proportion of a sun park is permanently built on – the rest can be given over to meadows under the solar panels, open spaces, and hedgerows around the perimeter. The land certainly isn’t wasted!

Is biodiversity encouraged on and around the sites in a meaningful way? 

We work on biodiversity as part of all our activities – giving land back to nature is part of our mission.

We grow meadows, and plant and manage hedgerows on most of our sun parks, which act as ecological corridors through the landscape and we focus on linking our sun parks to other rich habitats and nature reserves nearby wherever we can.

On our upcoming sun parks, we’re also looking at creating ponds and potentially adding beehives – which would benefit pollination across the wider landscape.

Are we using land that could be used for agricultural production?

No, the land used for the current sun parks is poor quality for agriculture. For farmers, it wouldn’t make financial sense and go against farming values to offer up their best agricultural land for solar. However, using land for sun parks can have a long-term gain for food production on land that has been intensively farmed. Stopping annual ploughing and the addition of artificial fertilizer and pesticides gives the land time to recover. Meadows restore soil health by increasing the amount of organic material, the number of invertebrates, and the degree of microbial activity in the soil.

Deep-rooting plants help rainwater to percolate down and stop surface runoff of topsoil into rivers, which means that by the end of a sun park’s average 40-year life, the land will be in better health and can be returned to productive agriculture if needed or left as a rich, biodiverse habitat.

In the future if diets change and less land is required for animal-based agriculture, this may also open up opportunities to repurpose the land (either for crops, solar, or rewilding depending on the suitability of the land). This could also be better for biodiversity if done wisely.

Solar farm biodiversity
Why don’t we put solar panels all on roofs instead of putting them in fields?

We need to do both – unfortunately there’s not enough suitable roof space in Britain to generate all the electricity we need.

However, it would be great if every suitable roof had solar panels and we’re working with lots of homeowners and businesses to make this happen. Ecotricity already buys power from over 90,000 roofs across Britain!

As well as some roofs not being suitable, legal ownership of the panels can get complicated and put people off if they can’t buy them themselves. And sadly, the government initiative for all new homes to be carbon zero by 2016 was removed a few years ago.

In this country, about one-third of solar is roof mounted and two-thirds are field scale. Even the delivery of the Government target of 70GW of solar electricity by 2035 would only cover 0.8% of the agricultural land in Britain and unlike newly built developments or roads, sun parks can easily be removed in the future.

With rapid improvements in technology, the land area sun parks require is likely to decrease. For example, at one sun park we received planning permission for before the pandemic, we are now able to install double the generation capacity in the same area.

How much more complicated is it to make the panels rotate and change angle to track the sun?

These kinds of panels are a relatively new development. They do have some advantages by generating more power in the morning and evening but are more expensive to build and require more maintenance.

We decide on the best technology to use on a site-by-site basis. The sun parks we’re currently building in Devon and Leicestershire both use two-sided (bifacial) solar panels to harvest the maximum electricity from the smallest space, by using light reflected off the ground hitting the underside of the panel, as well as sunlight directly hitting the top face. Installing energy storage within Sun Parks will dramatically help balance supply of electricity when the sun isn’t shining.

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