UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An innovative project is creating a buzz around Penn State’s University Park campus, especially among the many species of pollinators that call Centre County home.
In early June, millions of flower seeds were planted around and under 10 acres of solar panels on Orchard Road near Beaver Stadium. The wildflower varieties are highly attractive to pollinators such as native bees, honey bees and butterflies, all of which play a vital role in supporting food and flowering plants, according to Harland Patch, assistant research professor of entomology.
(Meadville Land Service, of Meadville, planted seeds for a pollinator-friendly habitat at the Penn State Orchard Road solar array. IMAGE: MEADVILLE LAND SERVICE)
“Many species of pollinators, especially honey bees, are in decline and need our help to boost their numbers,” said Patch of the project, which was spearheaded at Penn State by the College of Agricultural Sciences, the Center for Pollinator Research, the Sustainability Institute and the Office of Physical Plant.
“Combining renewable energy production with pollinator-friendly habitats is a win-win-win for the environment, pollinators and humans,” he said.
Now a familiar sight on campus, the solar array is the result of a fall 2018 agreement between the Office of Physical Plant and the Alternative Energy Development Group — known as AEDG — a Pennsylvania-based renewable energy developer.
AEDG and Meadow Valley Electric, of Lancaster, built, financed, own and maintain the solar farm; Penn State uses 100% of the clean energy generated for campus electricity needs. The site also serves as a living laboratory for faculty and student research, an aspect of the project that was important to all parties.
“We are proud to partner with a national leader such as Penn State to advance learning about the benefits of renewable energy,” said Don Bradley, senior director of energy storage and advanced microgrids for AEDG. “When we started in business as practitioners 30 years ago, we had solar leaders who mentored us, and we want to share our knowledge with the next generation of conservationists.”
The Orchard Road site is one of several solar projects supported or sponsored by Penn State, including a 70-megawatt, utility-scale solar project in Franklin County that will provide 25% of Penn State’s purchased electricity over the next 25 years. All are part of a larger University initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Every solar installation requires a soil stabilization plan, and some solar farm owners satisfy that requirement by planting grass. “But we had a different idea, one that would prevent runoff while also benefiting the ecosystem,” said Patch, who designed the Pennsylvania Solar Site Pollinator Habitat Planning Scorecard, a guide to vegetation management at solar installations.
That idea — to create a pollinator-friendly habitat — was conceived by Patch, Bradley, Tom Flynn, landscape architect with the Office of Physical Plant, and Meghan Hoskins, director of operations and partnerships for the Sustainability Institute.
“Renewable energy projects themselves are very important and necessary due to the associated reduction of greenhouse gas and other emissions associated with the generation of electricity,” Hoskins said. “However, projects like this one demonstrate the potential for tackling multiple challenges at one site — in this case, making smart use of the land under the solar farm for increasing pollinator biodiversity.”
To bring their vision to fruition, the group turned to Calvin Ernst, a Penn State graduate and president of Ernst Conservation Seeds in Meadville, a company specializing in native and naturalized seeds. Ernst, who serves on the Center for Pollinator Research’s stakeholder advisory board, donated 32 million seeds for the project.
Mark Fiely, a horticulturist with the company, also a Penn State graduate, assisted with choosing the best native perennial varieties, such as zig zag aster, mistflower, butterfly milkweed and mountain mint. Some of the 12 wildflower species boast petals in blue and white, an homage to Penn State. Colors of rival football teams were avoided, Fiely quipped.
Fiely said the group was thoughtful in planning for “continuity of bloom,” meaning the meadow will be filled with color from spring through fall.
“Penn State is a flagship institution for agricultural research, and with our company’s passion for environmental conservation — and its strong connection to Penn State — it was important for us to aid this initiative,” said Fiely, who added that the company has 13 alumni and several undergraduates on its payroll.
A project of this scale requires specialized equipment and knowledge, so the Office of Physical Plant sought the expertise of Randi Grout of Meadville Land Service, of Meadville, for the meadow planting.
“Planting flower meadows is not as simple as throwing out seeds,” said Flynn. “Meadville Land Service has been an invaluable partner in developing the site, and they continue to guide us on the process of long-term management.”
The team lauded AEDG, Ernst Conservation Seeds and Meadville Land Service for providing in-kind and financial support for the project, especially considering the budget constraints faced by the University due to the coronavirus pandemic. “This project would not have been possible without these companies,” Flynn said. “It is a triumph of cooperation in difficult times.”
Chris Fraga, chief executive officer of AEDG, said the Orchard Road solar project is among the most rewarding of his career. He described working with Penn State as “highly collaborative with appropriately set high standards.” He said the company continues to support the University by teaching classes, enhancing curriculum with practical industry and project-level knowledge, and providing educational tours of the solar farm.
“These exceptional projects demonstrate what can be accomplished through a productive public-private partnership that aims to meet the needs of stakeholders and a community,” Fraga said. “Giving back is in our company’s DNA, so we will continue to share our knowledge to enrich students’ education and get them — and others — excited about renewable energy.”
Patch said the completion of this project is timely because June is National Pollinators Month. “Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of our food,” he said. “This latest project is another shining example of how Penn State is committed to developing and implementing creative approaches to pollinator conservation.”
More information on pollinator initiatives at Penn State can be found at https://ento.psu.edu/
–Amy Duke, Penn State University