New York Pollinator-Friendly Solar Bill Unanimously Passes Assembly and Senate

Solar-Pollinator—Courtesy_PrairieRestorationsInc
Photo: Prairie Restoration, Inc.

The New York State Assembly and Senate have unanimously passed an agricultural bill to establish a statewide vegetation standard for solar arrays and provide benefits to numerous stakeholders. The Pollinator-Friendly Solar Act, A08083A/S06339A, was sponsored by Senator Patty Ritchie (R-Oswegatchie) and Assemblyman Bill Magee (D-Nelson).

The legislation establishes a clear path forward for the ground under and around a growing number of solar arrays to be with planted low-growing flowering plants and native grasses—instead of traditional turf grass or gravel—that provide urgently needed habitat for pollinators and birds. Pollinator-friendly landscapes are more resilient to intense downpours and severe droughts and stack multiple functions, providing benefits to pollinators while also adding organic matter and breaking up compacted agricultural soils.

A recent peer-reviewed study, “Examining the Potential for Agricultural Benefits from Pollinator Habitat at Solar Facilities in the United States,” published in Environmental Science & Technology, identified more than 6,400 acres of pollinator-dependent crops close to 166 megawatts of solar arrays throughout New York state.

A 2018 priority bill for the New York League of Conservation Voters, the bill follows similar legislation passed in Minnesota, Maryland, Vermont, and Illinois with coordination from the Center for Pollinators and Energy, a national catalyst, and clearinghouse for state-based initiatives and best practices, located at Minnesota-based Fresh Energy. Spurred by their groundbreaking 2014 Birds and Climate Change report, the National Audubon Society became a catalyzing partner for the state-level push around solar sanctuaries with Fresh Energy in 2016. Audubon continues to partner with Fresh Energy and others around the country to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow.

Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, “We are delighted that our New York State Legislature has passed these companion bills. As pollinator species decline while solar energy projects increase across our state, it is common sense to create standards for solar developers that will protect our farms. An increase in the number of pollinator-friendly solar arrays would benefit pollinators and agriculture, make solar sites more aesthetically pleasing, and help New York develop its renewable energy resources.”

Rob Davis, Director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy, said “Agricultural leaders nationwide are urgently searching for land locations and resources that can help establish and maintain acres of pollinator-friendly landscapes. For honey bees as well as native pollinators, the plants under and around solar arrays can provide both healthy forage and safe refuge, all paid for with private-sector capital.”

“Bees and other pollinators are critical to the health and future of agriculture and food production. Solar projects are often located in rural areas, which allows for the encouragement of pollinator-friendly plantings that will support nearby farms and make farmland more productive,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chair State Senator Patty Ritchie said. “I am pleased to have sponsored this bill that supports our hardworking farmers and rural economies, and I hope the Governor wastes no time signing it into law.”

“New York State is home to breathtaking wildlife and top-notch plants and produce, and natural pollinators play a critical role making that a reality,” State Assemblyman William Magee said. “The declining number of pollinators across the state poses a tremendous threat to farmers’ ability to grow and sell their crops, hurting agricultural businesses and causing a ripple effect on our economy.”

The legislation establishes a minimum standard that solar developers must fulfill if they want to call their projects beneficial to pollinators or “pollinator-friendly.” The standard, in the form of a scorecard, will be designed by the Department of Agriculture and Markets, Department of Environmental Conservation and New York agricultural research institutions with pollinator expertise.

“Informed by the work of other prominent scholars like Dr. Marla Spivak at University of Minnesota and Dr. Taylor Ricketts at University of Vermont, the New York pollinator-friendly solar scorecard will provide fair, flexible, and science-based methods for establishing habitats that are beneficial to pollinators,” said Scott McArt PhD., an Assistant Professor of Entomology at Cornell University who will be involved in the scorecard’s design.

Agricultural and conservation sector stakeholders were encouraged by the legislation.

“Pairing native plants and ground-mounted solar arrays represents an unparalleled opportunity to advance solar energy, address the threat of pollinator extinction, and support local agriculture and farmers,” said Ellen Conrad, Co-President, Bedford 2020 Coalition.

“When I signed up my land to be used for a community solar farm, the pollinator component was a clear benefit for my community. The wildflower and grass vegetation create a more attractive land use that significantly helps increase the number of pollinating insects for neighboring farmers as well as improving the soil for future farming generations,” said Richard Murray, who will have a pollinator-friendly solar farm from Eden Renewables.

“Last year alone, New York State beekeepers lost 43 percent of their honey bee colonies,” said Dr. Kirsten Traynor, a honey bee biologist and editor-in-chief, American Beekeeping Journal. “It is our hope that the pollinator solar bill and pollinator-friendly commitments from Cypress Creek Renewables and other developers, will provide important habitat that supports pollinator health, while also increasing awareness of our intertwined relationship to these fragile creatures.”

“Populations of honey bees and all pollinators are in crisis and urgently need flowering landscapes that provide food and nutrition,” said Tim May, president of the American Beekeeping Federation and CEO of Sunny Hill Apiaries. “It is greatly encouraging to hear about private sector investments, from the solar industry, that can help bees. Pollinator-friendly plants under and around ground-mounted solar can play an important role in helping protect New York pollinators for the next generation of farmers.”

Jordan Macknick, Lead Energy/Water/Land Analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and principal investigator of the Lab’s InSPIRE study into low-impact solar development approaches, said, “Our modeling data shows that there are more than 6,400 acres of pollinator-dependent crops in the vicinity of existing New York large-scale solar sites. Future research will further refine and quantify the value of ecosystem and pollination services that can be provided to agriculture from pollinator-friendly PV solar arrays.”

Clare Lindahl, CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society said, “Each year we lose tons of topsoil to our streams, lakes, and rivers. Acknowledging that state and federal funding alone can’t meet our conservation demand for healthy soil and pollinator preservation, there is a push in the conservation community to engage the private sector so that we can scale this work up to where it needs to be. The practice of pollinator-friendly solar will hold soils on site and enrich them over time—making an incredibly productive use of the space today and into the future.”

Reprinted from New York League of Conservation Voters news release.