What is Habitat Friendly Solar?
The Habitat Friendly Solar Program supports the establishment of habitat for pollinators, songbirds and other species in addition to project co-benefits such as water management, grazing and soil health. Support is provided through a combination of technical resources, collaboration with conservation partners and project assessment forms.
This program was initiated to comply with Minnesota legislative requirements stating that “an owner of a solar site implementing solar site management practices may claim that the site provides benefits to gamebirds, songbirds and pollinators only if the site adheres to guidance set forth by the pollinator plan provided by the Board of Water and Soil Resources” (Minn. Stats. 216B.1642). Local governments and other landowners, as well as solar developers, can work toward meeting the standards. Some municipalities are also requiring that ground mounted solar projects are meeting Habitat Friendly standards to help ensure that projects are providing multiple landscape benefits and are maintained for the lifespan of the project.
As the program has evolved it has an increased emphasis on providing technical guidance for projects ranging from small community solar projects to large utility scale solar projects. See the list of BWSR and partner resources at the bottom of this webpage. The program also has an increased focus on the recognition for solar developers, municipalities and schools that are working to accomplish landscape co-benefits as part of solar projects. BWSR updated the project assessment forms in 2020 based on feedback from stakeholders and information from site inspections. The goal of this update was to ensure that the forms meet program objectives and to recognize the highest-quality projects with a "gold standard." The updated forms were posted here in April of 2020. A Habitat Friendly Solar Summit is being planned for March 2022 to increase collaboration between stakeholders.
2022 Habitat Friendly Solar Summit Presentations
In March 2022, BWSR and partners convened a virtual Habitat Friendly Solar Summit, "Partnerships for Solar Co-Benefits." Partners and sponsors of the Summit included Great Plains Institute, Connexus Energy, Xcel Energy, Enel, Natural Resource Services, MN Commerce Department, Clean Grid Alliance, MN Department of Agriculture, National Grid Renewables, and the University of Minnesota Extension. Presentations are linked below.
- 2022 Solar Summit Presentations
The Big Picture of Solar Co-Benefits in Minnesota - Great Plains Institute
2020 Habitat Friendly Solar Summit Presentations
In February 2020, BWSR and nonprofit partners Fresh Energy and Great Plains Institute, as well as the DNR and Institute on the Environment (UMN) convened a Solar Habitat Summit, hosted by Connexus Energy. About 80 attendees from counties, conservation districts, solar developers, native landscape designers and state agencies participated. Presentations are linked below.
- 2020 Solar Summit Presentations
Steps for Meeting and Maintaining Standard Requirements
1) For design guidance refer to the DNR's Prairie Establishment & Maintenance Technical Guidance for Solar Projects (pdf) and BWSR's Sample Habitat Friendly Solar Planting Plan Specifications (pdf), and work with experts in the field of habitat restoration. Solar projects should be located outside of remnant prairie and important habitats, as identified by the DNR and federal wildlife agencies. As a general principle, at least 85% of the land area of sites needs to be planted with native seed mixes to meet the standard.
2) Fill out the Project Planning Assessment Form (updated 05-2020 (pdf).
3) Submit the Project Planning Assessment Forms, the site plan with a map, a copy of the planting plan for the project, the seed mix (showing seeds/sq ft for each species) and any supplemental long term management plans and communications to protect the site from pesticide drift (see details in the assessment form) to local government staff who have approval responsibilities for the project, or to firstname.lastname@example.org if local staff are not involved. Local staff who are approving projects will then coordinate with BWSR.
4) If projects meet the requirements listed above they will be added to a list of projects meeting requirements posted on the Board off Water and Soil Resources website and will be able to promote the array as a MN Board of Water and Soil Resources “Habitat Friendly Solar” project. A sample project sign is under development.
Steps to continue meeting the standard and remaining on the state list of projects
1) Projects need to be inspected yearly to identify any management needs. See the yearly monitoring forms below under "resources".
2) At the end of the third year of vegetation establishment (by December 31st) for the project, and every three years afterwards, have qualified natural resource staff with plant ID knowledge fill out the Established Project Assessment Form (updated 05-2021) (pdf) and submit the form along with at least three site images that show the current vegetation to local government staff who have approval responsibilities for the project or other BWSR-designated representatives. Submitting these materials will keep you on the list of projects meeting standards and enable you to promote the array as a MN Board of Water and Soil Resources “Habitat Friendly Solar” project. In addition to the full assessment being conducted every three years, yearly site inspections will be important to identify issues with weeds, erosion or other problems that need to be addressed. If projects have significant problems, additional discussion about potential solutions may be needed between project managers, local government staff and BWSR to ensure that projects can remain on the list of projects meeting standards.
Q & A
Who can fill out the assessment forms and conduct the site assessments?
Independent contracting ecologists or SWCD staff who have strong plant identification skills can conduct the assessment.
How many acres can a single form cover?
One assessment form can be used for most contiguous sites, though more than one form may be needed for sites that have varying soil conditions across the site and/or upland and wetland plant communities that are significantly different in their composition, or sites that occur at multiple locations, when each site is greater than 20 acres including perimeter acreage.
For the “Project Planning Assessment Form”, where can I find more information about determining if the genetic origin of seed is within 175 miles?
See BWSR’s Native Vegetation Establishment and Enhancement Guidelines (pdf) for more information on this topic as well as other topics related to seed quality and vegetation establishment.
What areas can be excluded from assessment areas?
Certain areas do not need to be included as part of the habitat assessments; these include roads, parking areas and buildings. Some sites have wetland areas that are dominated by aggressive invasive species including reed canary grass or hybrid/narrow-leaf cattail that is too difficult to convert to native vegetation. As long as these areas are mapped as separate from the planted areas they can be left out of the assessment.
What monitoring methods should be used for site assessments?
Qualified natural resource staff who are conducting the assessments should select a monitoring method that will provide an unbiased assessment that will be representative of the entire site rather than select portions of the site. Timed meanders or transects are common vegetation monitoring methods.
What if it is determined that a site no longer meets standards?
If sites no longer meet standards it is recommended that you work with contractors to assess what changes are needed to make the necessary improvements and improve scores.
Template Pesticide Letter (docx)
Local Government Solar Toolkits: The Great Plains Institute has developed toolkits for planning, zoning, and permitting of solar projects for Minnesota and other Midwest states.