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Local solar project to turn land into pollinator haven

A similar project to the one being built in Hastings, EGP-NA’s Sheldon Springs PV project in Vermont is pictured here. (Submitted photo)

Enel Green Power North America (EGP-NA) has started construction on a new solar power site just north of Hastings. Part of the Aurora Solar project, the site is one of 16 solar photo-voltaic sites being built across Minnesota. The Aurora project is the first utility-scale solar site in Minnesota. It’s also one of the first pollinator-friendly solar sites in the country.

EGP-NA worked with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to develop a vegetation plan for its Aurora solar sites that creates a biodiverse habitat for pollinator species, according to EGP-NA.

“EGP-NA saw the integration of a vegetation plan into the overall site design as an exciting opportunity to proactively support the local farming ecosystem and communities,” EGP-NA representatives wrote in an email interview. “For example, the Aurora solar project uses pollinator friendly seed mix and native plant species and wildlife which results in prairie grasses and flowers throughout the site that contribute to the growth of pollinator species populations. These species like bees and monarch butterflies are critical to supporting the pollination and production of local crops and the preservation and health of farmland and native landscapes.”

The seed mix, which includes a combination of flowering perennials, grasses, sedges and rushes, is being planted at all Aurora sites, including the one in Hastings. The mix features 23 different flowering plants with bloom times ranging from May to October. Some of the specific plants included are coneflower, milkweed, phlox, black-eyed-Susan, goldenrod and asters.

“The addition of these plants will help to promote the pollination and resulting growth of crops in the surrounding area,” EGP-NA wrote.

Beyond providing vegetation specifically to help pollinators thrive, the vegetation plan at the site is also projected to preserve farmable land. Prior to construction, the Hastings site was used for agriculture. EGP-NA wrote that specific seeding and soil is being used at each site to help preserve the land throughout the life of the project. Deep rooted plants will channel storm water into the aquifer, reducing runoff and dispersing water to surrounding agricultural land. The plants will also build topsoil over time and help prevent soil erosion.

“The site’s unique and robust vegetation plan will help promote pollination and the preservation of farmable soils and land,” EGP-NA wrote. “In fact, the Aurora solar project improves top soils, manages storm water, and provides pollinator habitat equivalent to more than 500,000 backyard gardens, all of which will support the pollination of local crops in the surrounding agricultural areas.”

While there are no plans currently to add pollinator houses such as bee boxes to the solar sites, EGP-NA noted that such additions are included in future considerations that are being assessed for the project.

Ongoing field maintenance under the solar panels is being developed with the Minnesota DNR.

“The ongoing field maintenance will ensure the cultivation of these plants, while discouraging the growth of weeds, which can hamper the growth of the pollinator plant species,” EGP-NA wrote.

The Hastings site is located in Denmark Township, northeast of Highway 10 and Norell Road South. Construction has begun. When complete, the entire Aurora project is expected to generate over 210 million kWh annually – equivalent to the energy consumption needs of over 17,000 U.S. households, according to an EGP-NA press release. The power generated from the Aurora solar project will be sold under a bundled, long-term power purchase agreements with Minnesota based utility, Xcel Energy.

It is expected to be operational by the end of 2016.

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