Native Planting Around Solar Panels
Indiana has seen a massive jump in solar power and solar panels over the past couple of years. A large part of this comes from big solar projects in rural and just outside of urban areas (perhaps you’ve seen some of these roadside solar farms). State incentives, tax credits, and rebates, however, make it more feasible and logical for small business owners and private residents to get on board. Some of these perks include:
- Net metering that can earn you credits on your electric bill if you feed extra energy into the main grid
- Added property value from new solar systems (which are exempt from property taxes)
- Exemption of sales tax on certain solar equipment
To help offset upfront costs, there are even loan programs available. You can read more specifics on the benefits of installing solar systems here.
Solar is a great source of renewable energy for Indiana because the equipment is often placed in under-utilized areas. This includes fields, abandoned waste zones, and prior industrial areas. Many of these areas are already getting “reclaimed by the land”, so why not give it a boost with more native plants and make some energy too? Plus, all of the pollinators buzzing and flitting around help local crops.
What About the Land Used for Solar Panels?
There are plenty of reasons to switch to solar, but they pose environmental concerns for some. Nature-lovers are concerned this poses risks to local wildlife by destroying habitats. However, there is a simple solution to this issue.
With such a wide variety of native plants, it only makes sense to use them around and even under your solar set-up. Not only do you add a splash of color to the area, but solve the issue of possible pollinator and wildlife habitat loss too (although it is not recommended to set solar arrays up in established natural areas). Pairing native plants with solar panel systems increases the likelihood that a large-scale community initiative is passed.
Below, we talk more in-depth about why it makes sense to couple native plants with solar panel systems. Even better, we give you lists of plants that work well around and under solar panels!
Increase Pollinator Numbers and Crop Yields
While pesticides keep crop-destroying insects away, they also hurt the “good bugs” that help pollinate these plants. Wild areas filled with native plants help sustain these important members of our ecosystem. Take a look at some of these statistics from a Scientific American article.
- “Up to $577 billion in annual global food production relies on pollination by insects and other animals such as hummingbirds and bats, according to the United Nations.
- More than half of native U.S. bee species have seen their numbers drop sharply since 2005, with almost 25 percent now at risk of extinction.
- The U.S. Monarch butterfly population has declined 68% over the past two decades, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity says. Suspected factors include climate change, pesticide use, and parasites—along with shrinking habitat, largely blamed on natural landscapes (such as scrublands or wetlands) being converted for agricultural use.”
One reason community members oppose solar systems is that some deem them an eyesore. Aside from the solar panels themselves, the rest of the area is often left covered in grass or gravel. Native plants are not only pretty, but they actually improve the soil by adding nutrients and prevent erosion. This can be an especially important bonus for former agriculture fields that are prone to losing important nutrients from overuse and top soil degradation.
More Pocket Change
Native-solar plantings are not only easy on the eyes but the wallet as well. You don’t have to worry about the extra maintenance cost of mowing grass regularly around solar arrangements. Compared to the cost of turf maintenance, initial costs of native plants are recoverable in about the first three years. This is just another reason why solar panel systems and native plants are mutually beneficial.
Planting flowers and grasses under solar panels can help you save money on the equipment itself too. Greenery keeps the area under these a lot cooler than gravel, another low-maintenance option at a lot of solar sites. Gravel gets hot in the sun, creating heat islands. This decreases the efficiency of the solar system and lead to degradation of the solar panels more quickly.
Ideal Native Plants for Solar Systems
Naturally, certain plants work better under solar panels and others around them due to varying plant heights and needs. Below, please find lists of native plants that work well in each area.
Under Solar Arrays
- Various Asters (Sky Blue, Smooth, White)
- Prairie Clover (Purple and White)
- Coreopsis (Lanceleaf and Moonbeam)
- Black-Eyed Susan
- Prairie Dropseed
- Oak Sedge
Around Solar Arrays
- Purple Coneflower
- Prairie Blazingstar
- Canada Milk Vetch
- Smooth Penstemon
- Lavender Hyssop
- Golden Alexanders
- Sideoats Grama
- Northern Sea Oats
Tips for Planting
Here are some additional tips for choosing what to plant and where.
First, you can mix in the “under solar arrays” flowers and grasses mentioned above with the ones going around your system. The natives listed in the first category are there because they generally don’t grow over two feet tall, three at the most. This makes them perfect for fitting under the panels without interfering with them.
Diversity is a key element to shoot for. The wider the variety of plants, the more pollinators you are likely to attract. While wildflower mixes are convenient and do attract feeding pollinators, they don’t help much in growing their numbers. Many butterflies are particular about what plants they lay their eggs on. Take the Monarch, for instance. It only lays its eggs on species of milkweed. These don’t generally come in bulk seed mixes. Plus, with many different species of plants, bloom times are prolonged. And, the more diverse the area is, the more likely it will be able to obtain long-term health and sustainability. In other words, maintenance costs are cut even further!
Things to Avoid with Solar Panels
Not all native plants, even those that prefer open prairie-like settings, are suitable for use around solar systems. For example, prairie dock and tall coreopsis grow exceedingly tall. These plants can grow as tall as an adult, if not taller. You want to plant these far enough away from panels that they don’t interfere or avoid implementing them altogether.
If you’re more of a visual person, head over to this Nature Conservancy page for a simple diagram of where to plant what. It also has maintenance suggestions for the first few years.
Recommended planting time is in the spring after the last threat of frost and snow is passed. You can also plant in the dormant season. This will generally be in the fall as you want to ensure you get your seeds in the ground before it freezes or snows.
Ready to Get Started?
Greenscape Geeks loves plants as much as you do! Ready to start on your own solar array and native planting project? Give us a call, send us an email, or schedule a consultation today. We’re happy to walk you through the process and answer any questions you may have.
Greenscape Geeks is a central Indiana landscape architecture and landscape design, construction, and lawn maintenance company, serving Indianapolis (including Meridian Kessler, Herron Morton, Williams Creek, and Irvington), Carmel, Noblesville, Fishers, and Zionsville.
This blog post is by Alicia Owen