Regenerative Energy® — the co-location of solar energy generation and regenerative agriculture — is changing the global conversation about solar land management by recognizing that land and vegetation are valuable biological assets rather than liabilities.
After solar modules are installed on land, the land typically goes idle. It’s usually mowed, but any agricultural production ceases, and the land and vegetation are viewed as operational liabilities. Silicon Ranch’s Regenerative Energy® team manages the land and vegetation in alignment with natural systems to drive valuable outcomes — revitalized soils, increased biodiversity, sequestered carbon, and improved water quality. We restore functioning grassland ecosystems while keeping the land in agricultural production.
Acknowledging that biodiversity is essential in functioning grassland ecosystems, we’ve worked with White Oak Pastures to integrate pastured poultry production at Bancroft Station, which we believe to be the world’s first pastured poultry raised on a utility scale solar plant. More than 10,000 broiler chickens and ducks are being raised on a two-week cycle on pasture, under the modules, following behind the sheep rotation. The poultry thrive on the grasses freshly grazed by the sheep, while providing organic pest control and additional fertilization for grass establishment.
An Opportunity for Revitalization
Utility scale solar energy development is expanding. It’s land intensive. Regenerative Energy® harnesses solar land to help address multiple societal problems, going above and beyond generating clean electricity from the power plant itself. Across this rapidly growing land base, we have an incredible opportunity to achieve valuable outcomes that benefit the planet, local communities, our customers, and future generations while achieving the necessary vegetation management to hold soil in place and prevent shading of the solar modules.
By managing the land in alignment with natural systems, Regenerative Energy® positively influences the functioning of nature’s basic cycles, facilitating ecosystem renewal.
Our grassland restoration efforts lead to multiple positive environmental outcomes, which we measure and third-party verify. These outcomes include improved soil formation and nutrient cycling, better water cycling and water quality, increased carbon cycling and carbon removal, and enhanced habitat and biodiversity.
Soil Formation and Nutrient Cycling
Holistic planned grazing and animal impact can increase the amount of soil organic matter in soils over time. This improves water holding capacity, carbon exchange capacity, and bulk density of soils, all of which are leading indicators of soil health and ecosystem function.
The photo at left shows the change in soil health at White Oak Pastures, where the soil organic matter increased from 1% to 5% on its regeneratively managed land. Over time, we can expect similar results on solar land that is regeneratively managed.
Water Cycling and Water Quality
Managing land to promote forage, long-term vegetation, and plant growth cycles (rather than abating vegetation) creates good vegetation cover and healthier, looser soils. Good vegetation cover and looser soils slow water and allow for improved water infiltration, percolation, and retention. This process also improves nutrient retention and plant uptake, leading to more and healthier plants with deeper, broader root systems.
Carbon Cycling and Carbon Renewal
Holistic planned livestock grazing fosters more frequent grass growth cycles. As a result, the land has a larger number of healthy plants, which lead to improved carbon cycling—as the plants are pulling carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Some of the carbon sequestered is stored in plant biomass, including roots, and ultimately in the soil.
Habitat Creation and Biodiversity
Restoring grasslands increases biodiversity within soils and improves nutrient cycling and overall soil health by fostering continual plant growth. Soft buffer areas between the solar array and surrounding lands create the “edge effect,” attracting wildlife and improving biodiversity and habitat, including habitat that supports native pollinators and ground-nesting birds.
Measuring Our Impact
We measure and third-party verify our ecological outcomes using the Savory Institute’s Land to Market Ecological Outcome Verification assessment methodology, which was developed in collaboration with leading soil scientists, ecologists, agronomists, and an extensive network of regenerative land managers around the world. This methodology measures the health of the land as a living system. In 2019, the Savory Institute certified land housing six Silicon Ranch solar plants as ‘regenerative’, the first and only solar land to receive this certification.
To further understand and improve upon our work, we implement Regenerative Energy® EcoMetrics at select projects—a customized methodology that assesses the full value of our environmental, social, and economic impacts.
Through the Ecological Outcome Verification methodology, we track and measure outcomes in biodiversity, soil health, and ecosystem function using a variety of metrics. “Vegetative Cover and Functional Groups by Percent” is one such metric. These metrics inform the Environmental Health Index score for each Regenerative Energy® project, which is an aggregated measure of ecosystem health and quantifies the outcomes our regenerative land management is catalyzing.