ENGIE’s Gavin Meinschein on the Company’s Foray Into Pollinator-Friendly Solar

In Brief

Given pollinator-friendly solar's promising value proposition, several states have passed voluntary standards to encourage the practice, and a number of developers have committed to pollinator-friendly projects for all or part of their portfolios.

In this interview, Gavin Meinschein, ENGIE’s lead civil engineer, discusses the case for pollinator-friendly solar and the company’s experience implementing the practice.

"If the solar industry is going to develop 3 million acres of projects by 2030," Meinschein said, "why not put that land to good use? The more I learned about prairie establishment, the more it seemed to fit."

Gavin Meinschein

Photo courtesy of Gavin Meinschein

This article is the second in a three-part Clean Energy Finance Forum series on the potential of pollinator-friendly solar development in Minnesota and beyond. For more, see the Yale Center for Business and the Environment white papers on the land use benefits of the practice, and strategies for financing it.

Pollinator-friendly solar refers to the planting of native perennial vegetation throughout a solar project site, which offers habitat to threatened wild pollinators as well as a host of other environmental benefits. It also has the potential to benefit developers by boosting community buy-in and reducing lifetime operations and maintenance costs. Given the promising value proposition, several states have passed voluntary standards to encourage the practice, and a number of developers have committed to pollinator-friendly projects for all or part of their portfolios.

Illinois-based ENGIE Distributed Solar is one such developer. In this interview, Gavin Meinschein, ENGIE’s lead civil engineer, discusses the case for pollinator-friendly solar and the company’s experience implementing the practice. This transcript has been lightly edited.

CEFF: What was the impetus behind ENGIE’s adoption of pollinator-friendly solar practices?

Meinschein: When ENGIE (formerly SoCore Energy) was transitioning from rooftop installations to the ground-mount solar business, the question came up of “what do we plant on our project sites?” We did some research, but felt like there wasn’t a clear standard out there. Most solar developers don’t think too much about the vegetation. The vegetation management plan is a small part of all the inputs that go into solar development, so it quickly becomes a copy-paste detail that goes into every set of project drawings.

Prior to ENGIE, my background was in building construction. I had done prairie plantings in business park projects, so I looked into native prairie vegetation options for our solar sites. Based on my initial research, there were a lot of companies that could sell the native seeds, but few that had the resources and know-how to maintain the vegetation over time.

"We were willing to spend a little more to do the right thing, and were willing to risk a small cost premium with the upside potential that it could be cheaper."

Despite that challenge, I believed that pollinator-friendly plantings on solar sites could have huge potential positive impact. If the solar industry is going to develop 3 million acres of projects by 2030, why not put that land to good use? The more I learned about prairie establishment, the more it seemed to fit –– it would deter weeds and invasive species that would otherwise need to be sprayed, it would be low-maintenance, and it would be self-sustaining over the lifetime of the project. It would also allow solar to play a unique role in helping to address the decline of pollinator habitat nationwide. I was blown away that planting native vegetation had these awesome benefits and the potential to save money; it seemed like the right fit.

ENGIE went with a native vegetation mix on our first [ground-mounted] project, and has been developing pollinator-friendly solar projects ever since. It started out as proof of concept, and we didn’t really know if it would be economical at first. We were willing to spend a little more to do the right thing, and were willing to risk a small cost premium with the upside potential that it could be cheaper. We’ve found on a portfolio basis, it is an economically viable approach to development.

CEFF: What are the most important factors for a developer to consider before implementing pollinator-friendly solar on a site?

Meinschein: The number one thing is to truly understand the commitment and buy in. Understand that it is going to take prep work, development and monitoring over time. Another critical component is choosing a qualified contractor that will make a commitment to getting the native vegetation established in first three years. They will need to implement practices like cover cropping that they may not have done before. You can always re-seed in year two if you need to, but if you don’t achieve the proper establishment in the first few years the project owner will be dealing with the vegetation for the lifetime of the project, and it will cost a lot more. You have to put in the time at the beginning.

It’s also important to understand that you’ll have some sites that will be a lot more difficult than others. Some will be a cakewalk and will come in at a quarter of the budget, while others will cost twice what you would expect. That’s why at ENGIE, we take a portfolio perspective. Given the variations in soil conditions, the slope of the site, and what time of year the vegetation is planted, every site will be different, but we’ve found the outcomes equilibrate over time.

CEFF: What are the primary benefits from a developer’s point of view?

Meinschein: The primary benefit we’ve seen is the community perception once the project is established. People like the idea when we present it at a zoning meeting, but they don’t really get it until year two or three, when they’re seeing the results. For example, we have a 50-acre project in Minnesota where we installed solar on 30 acres and left the other 20 acres as open field. Since there were no height constraints, we went crazy with the mix on the open field –– it’s now an explosion of color, and the flowers are blooming throughout the growing season. The project is surrounded by three landowners who were initially very upset about the project. We planted trees to block their view, and had to do a lot to get them to sign off, but now they think their view has actually improved and they want to take the trees down. It was great to see them come around once the site was in bloom.

"People like the idea when we present it at a zoning meeting, but they don’t really get it until year two or three, when they’re seeing the results."

The other major benefits would be the stormwater management and maintenance (O&M) aspects. Some big solar projects have sizable stormwater management requirements, especially when they lay gravel underneath; in comparison, native vegetation can double water infiltration rates compared to turf, so it reduces stormwater management as well as construction costs. From the O&M side, pollinator-friendly plantings reduce the long-term maintenance costs of the project.

I’ve also found, in cold-weather climates like the Upper Midwest, that native vegetation mixes might help guard against frost heave. That’s a huge concern among solar developers up there. There’s an argument that this complex root system creates more organic material that better insulates the soil, and that insulation can reduce or eliminate frost heave during the winter.

CEFF: What are the primary challenges or costs?

Meinschein: Trying to find experienced, qualified contractors at all project sites has been a challenge, given that ENGIE has around 70 sites in our portfolio and some states have more options than others. That’s one reason why I’m working to create a network of vetted contractors that developers can easily access. It can also be tricky to compare vegetation management plans across companies, as sometimes the quotes will vary widely and it’s difficult to know why.

Another thing I didn’t see coming was the challenge of the immediate establishment period. The site is a little messy at first, and we’ve had some complaints about the unkempt look at some of our sites. We need to educate surrounding landowners and other stakeholders that the site is not going to look like a perfectly manicured golf course. We’ve been working to create signage that says “prairie establishment in progress,” and are trying to set expectations so people understand that it’s a process.

On the decommissioning side, one of the biggest fears early on was around the long-term implications of creating habitat for threatened species: If we build something that attracts a bunch of endangered butterflies, what would happen to the site at the end of the project’s life? But it turned out that environmentalists weren’t in a rush to designate that land as protected habitat that could never be touched. So at the end of the day, that wasn’t a concern that kept us from moving forward. There are now groups working on agreements that would protect developers in this situation.

CEFF: How does pollinator-friendly solar affect project financing? What are investor reactions to the practice?

Meinschein: Our vegetation management plan hasn’t been a major issue for our investors. Most of the things they’re concerned about when it comes to project finance revolve around production modeling. The only thing our investors have asked us to verify is that there will be no panel shading. On our pollinator-friendly solar sites, we raise our systems to 30-36 inches off the ground so we allow the native vegetation to reach its full height without shading the panels. If our vegetation was causing shading issues, we would selectively mow strips in front of the panels to keep them unshaded.

CEFF: How are you monitoring your pollinator-friendly solar sites? What are some of the early results you’re seeing?

Meinschein: One of our Minnesota sites –– a 10-acre project in Asanti County –– is participating in the ongoing NREL InSPIRE (Innovative Site Preparation and Impact Reductions on the Environment) study. It’s positioned between two organic farms, so we’re hoping to get good numbers on the impact of our vegetation on the pollinator-dependent crops nearby. We’ve reached out to the farmers to gather information on what crops they’re planting and their yields from the past five years, and this year is the first growing season we’re studying the site. We’re maybe a year out from having preliminary results.

CEFF: How do you see pollinator-friendly solar evolving and spreading as it becomes more widely known and adopted?

Meinschein: We’re still trying to figure out and address the monitoring question. There are different scorecards for pollinator-friendly solar projects in every state, and the numbers don’t mean anything to larger world yet. We need something like a LEED seal, some kind of symbol that validates a developer’s efforts and gives them an incentive to go beyond the bare minimum. If there were tiers in the system, we could also see the difference between hitting the lowest bar versus getting 100% on the scorecard.

There’s also a need to find cost-effective ways to monitor and verify projects. Could a vegetation management company do it as part of their annual visit, for example? I’m talking with landscaping companies, academics, and other science groups to try to figure that piece out. I’m also working to create a consulting company that would develop and train a network of all qualified vegetation managers –– this could be a one-stop solution for any developer that’s interested in implementing pollinator-friendly solar. There’s starting to be a lot of interest from counties and developers, but people still don’t really know exactly how to do it; there’s still a big need for education.

Ultimately, we need to continue to prove the case for pollinator-friendly solar, develop a deeper understanding of the benefits, and scale it well, recognizing that every site is different. There’s a lot of ongoing research on the practice, which is exciting.

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