Seeking academic partners in solar energy

Nature Positive is working with EDF Renewables on an exciting project to understand the environmental benefits that solar farms can deliver. We are seeking to engage with interested academic partners to develop and deliver a programme of ecological research at Longfield Solar Farm in Essex. Please find a form to submit an expression of interest at the end of this page.

 

What is Longfield Solar Farm?

EDF Renewables UK and Padero Solar are proposing to build a solar energy farm and battery storage facility near Terling, Chelmsford, Essex. This is a nationally significant infrastructure project (NSIP) that will help the UK meet its targets of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 through low-carbon renewable energy generation. In March 2022, the proposals were accepted for examination by the Planning Inspectorate.

The proposed development footprint covers approximately 380 hectares of intensive arable farmland, with fields separated by hedgerows. Blocks of woodland are scattered throughout and are primarily managed for timber. In the northern area of the site, fields of improved pasture form the valley slopes of the River Ter site of special scientific interest. More information on the development proposals can be found on the Longfield Solar Farm website.

View map of Biodiversity Design Strategy

What do we want to know?

Solar farms can deliver clean energy, but they may also have a role to play in improving biodiversity and providing other ecosystem services; however, these potential benefits are currently poorly understood. Together with academic partners, we plan to embark on studies at Longfield Solar Farm to further our understanding of these potential benefits. Topics of particular interest are:

  • monitoring for the potential impacts of solar arrays on wildlife
  • maximising biodiversity in habitats under and adjacent to solar arrays
  • improving soil health and soil carbon storage in habitats under and adjacent to solar arrays.

A framework for research at Longfield Solar Farm

The scale of the proposed development provides opportunities to deliver significant biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits without detriment to the capacity for energy generation. Some habitat restoration and management that is beneficial to biodiversity is already planned as part of the proposals. The monitoring of wildlife such as bats and birds across the site (and potentially outside it) will help us to understand the broad impacts of the development. Some of this is covered under existing plans and commitments made by the project; however, there are opportunities to embed research studies into these plans, including the potential to influence habitat creation and management on parts of the site that will enable us to investigate impacts on biodiversity and soil characteristics arising from different management techniques. It is hoped that this will enable us to identify management regimes that could optimise the benefits of solar farms while not interfering with their operation, and in doing so, to influence best practice in the solar industry.

It is envisaged that most of the site will be sown as grassland or wild flower meadow, with separate treatments for boundaries, some of which will be mown and some sheep-grazed. We will have some opportunity to influence this for research purposes, to explore the extent of possible food production while maximising solar energy generation. Approximately 50 hectares within the solar farm will be available as an experimental area. In this area, it will be possible to create novel habitats (experimental plots) with prescribed management regimes. There will be the opportunity to compare plots within this experimental area with both the management under the solar arrays on the rest of the site and the surrounding agricultural land.

Sheep Solar Farm

We envisage implementing three work packages:

  1. Biodiversity: Monitoring across the site to identify solar farm impacts.
  2. The impact of a range of habitats that exist on solar farmland on biodiversity and associated ecosystem services (e.g., pollinators).
  3. The influence of solar farmland management on soil characteristics and associated ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration.

We are seeking expressions of interest from researchers to form collaborative partnerships to deliver these work packages. Some funding will be available to support the involvement of academic partners, but we would also be interested in hearing from those with independent funding who may wish to include the site in their studies.

General considerations for all studies:

  • Research undertaken within the experimental area cannot compromise the operational effectiveness of the solar array.
  • Land under the array will need to be in an appropriate condition to be returned to arable production at the cessation of the operation of the solar farm in 40 years’ time.
  • In the first instance, we are looking to embark on research proposals of one to five years’ duration.
  • There may be the potential in the longer term to recruit additional solar farm sites into research studies, but our initial focus will be on Longfield.

More information about the research themes:

Solar farmland management
The effects of solar arrays on biodiversity

There is an opportunity to conduct site-wide monitoring at Longfield on the effects of solar arrays on target species. Comparisons with the fate of target species in the wider adjacent agricultural landscape is likely to form part of such studies. Habitat creation and enhancements on parts of the site are aimed at benefiting biodiversity and it will be important to quantify these effects. Many species could conceivably benefit, but some of particular interest are farmland birds, invertebrates and bats. There are some reported incidences of negative impacts on a few species and we would welcome proposals that investigate the reality of this.

We anticipate the need to measure a range of indicators for species abundance across the site and to be able to compare these with the conventionally managed farmland beyond the solar farm (pending agreement with the land manager).

Blue butterfly for biodiversity
Solar farm habitats and biodiversity

There is an opportunity to conduct research at Longfield on the biodiversity benefits of different habitat creation and management regimes on solar farms. Such studies should consider the impacts on biodiversity under the solar arrays, in the margins of fields beyond the panels and in the adjacent agricultural landscape. We are particularly interested in investigating the diversity and abundance of invertebrate groups (especially those associated with ecosystem services such as pollinators and predators of agricultural pests) in relation to vegetation composition and floral resources arising from the creation of different habitats. The broad aim should be to identify how biodiversity on solar farms can be maximised through habitat creation and to compare it with that on adjacent agricultural land. We anticipate the opportunity to investigate measures of biodiversity in relation to several (perhaps three to six) different habitat creation treatments across the site. The treatments to be implemented are yet to be determined but are likely to include:

  1. an approach in which vegetation is allowed to establish naturally following the cessation of agricultural operations and is subsequently managed by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing
  2. the sowing of a species-rich legume mix or similar and subsequent management by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing
  3. the sowing of a diverse wild flower sward over and above the establishment of a standard lowland meadow-type mix and then subsequent management by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing.

We anticipate the need to measure a variety of indicators of biodiversity and associated ecosystem services across the site, particularly in the experimental area, to be able to compare these with the conventionally managed farmland beyond the solar farm (pending agreement with the land manager).

Solar farmland management
Solar farmland management and soil characteristics

There is an opportunity to conduct research at Longfield on the effects of solar farmland management on soil characteristics, such as nutrient composition, microbiota diversity, carbon content and sequestration and water retention. The broad aim will be to determine whether soil condition and its agricultural value can be improved under different land management approaches that could be implemented on solar farms. We anticipate the opportunity to investigate soil condition in relation to several (perhaps three to six) different habitat creation treatments across the site. The treatments to be implemented are yet to be determined but are likely to include:

  1. an approach in which vegetation is allowed to establish naturally following the cessation of agricultural operations and is subsequently managed by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing
  2. the sowing of a species-rich legume mix or similar and subsequent management by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing
  3. the sowing of a diverse wild flower sward over and above the establishment of a standard lowland meadow-type mix and subsequent management by either occasional cutting (with removal of arisings) or grazing.

We anticipate the need to measure physical, microbiota diversity, structural and chemical attributes of soil across the site to be able to compare these with the conventionally managed farmland beyond the solar farm (pending agreement with the land manager).