Working across systems for co-benefits

Environmental Initiative’s project and program work include numerous systems—agriculture, water, air, corporate sustainability, circular economy, and more. Often, these systems are treated distinctly in our dominant culture; I know that helps me think about levers to pull to create change without becoming overwhelmed. However, as I—and we as a society—get better at living with complexity, we can find opportunities that have distinct benefits across systems. The example I want to focus on here was brought to my attention a little over a year ago, and the opportunity will continue to resonate with me for years to come.

I was working on an exploratory phase to uncover opportunities for forming a source water protection collaborative in the state of Minnesota. During that time, a partner from an agricultural advocacy group let me know about some interesting work Brian Ross with Great Plains Institute (GPI) was doing. This partner explained the project, how it works, and the reasons they were excited for it. I was impressed not only by the project, but by the fact that Brian and his team presented the co-benefits in a way that created broad support across different sectors and perspectives.

Are you sufficiently hooked?

For those who are not familiar with GPI, their focus is on transforming the energy system to benefit the economy and environment. Brian Ross’ work focuses on renewable energy in particular. As the price of renewable technologies has decreased in the last five years, GPI’s focus has been on how to better integrate renewable energy in the market. The focus of this specific project was looking at the benefits of locating solar arrays in Drinking Water Supply Management Areas (DWSMAs)—creating numerous co-benefits, the primary being that it produces clean energy and improves water quality.

Photo: Jake Janski, Minnesota Native Landscapes

In an effort to reduce carbon emissions and meet carbon goals, GPI is looking to ramp up Minnesota’s solar energy to five or six times the amount we have now by 2030. How can we do that? What are the barriers? One of the biggest societal barriers to solar projects is the fact that they look like they use large swaths of land. Through the use of solar siting for multiple benefits, GPI is trying to reframe the narrative to have this be seen as a clean energy source instead of a consumptive land use.

It’s important to note that utility scale solar can be either a big problem or a big asset for water quality, depending on its location. GPI has been working with the National Renewable Energy Lab and the University of Minnesota to evaluate what the impacts of different types of ground cover with large scale solar are on water. This research is laying the groundwork to determine how and why solar can be considered green infrastructure.

The real sweet spot is locating solar with native plants in DWSMAs to better protect water quality. Brian has found broad support from natural resource conservation, habitat, and agriculture groups—a sort of path of least resistance. But is it worth bothering with?

There are varying benefits and challenges when converting agricultural lands into solar with native vegetation. Converting the land from agricultural use to solar provides landowners with longer-term financial certainty, hedging against volatile crop commodity prices for the remainder of their operation. It can increase habitat for the species that depend on native species, sequester carbon from the air to the soil, and improve soil health. At the same time, it takes land out of production, which can be a concern for the approximately 50% of Minnesota farmers that rent land. There are concerns around community character and the visual impacts, especially as renewable projects grow in size.

In Minnesota, there are 400,000 acres of land within vulnerable DWSMAs, about 110,000 of which are in row crop agriculture. Nitrate contamination can be a significant challenge in these rural areas, with costly treatment and often no other available sources to switch to. A protection strategy can be created by putting solar, with the appropriate ground cover, in a groundwater recharge area. This is especially important as treating contamination can cost as much as twenty times the cost of protection.1

But there are other significant challenges to co-locating solar in DWSMAs. Within the energy system, solar sites are typically determined by finding grid connection points and locating good solar opportunities near there. However, how can we bring grid connections to areas where solar placement can provide conservation benefits that extend across the community? As Brian put it, “How do we redesign transmission planning to capture co-benefits?”

As the utility-scale siting conversation expands, we need policy and regulatory shifts to capture water quality and other local co-benefits. For the solar projects to capture these opportunities, Brian says we need to:

  • Create national science-based solar-specific standards for water quality permitting.
  • Engage water quality experts and advocates in the conversation about best practices.
  • Redefine solar as a land use distinct from industrial uses in state regulation.
  • Clarify siting preferences for large-scale solar to ensure low-impact development; communities need to know that installations don’t replace critical habitat or diminish the community.
  • Reframe the questions “Are you improving the site?” versus “Are you meeting the standard?” and “What are you measuring?” versus “What is the regulatory standard?

I am excited by the possibility of seeing utility-scale implemented in a way that can benefit rural economies, human health, and our climate. These are components to a circular economy: an economy which is possible with creativity, an openness to change, a focus on well-being, and a commitment to a renewable energy future.

The co-benefits of siting solar with native vegetation in DWSMAs cuts across Environmental Initiative’s programs and shows how creative thinking can work to change multiple systems at one time. It will be interesting to see what ways the different partnerships and collaboratives that are housed under the Environmental Initiative umbrella can help to address these policy concerns to make this sort of project more feasible in the long run. Although it isn’t an Environmental Initiative project, I feel like this project demonstrates the new vision and mission of Environmental Initiative. As we at Environmental Initiative look to live into our new strategic plan, we will continue to grow our understanding of how to bridge across differences and perspectives to catalyze change.

Special thank you to Brian Ross for taking time to explain the project concept and answer my questions. 

Brian Ross was owner and principal of a consulting firm focused on energy and urban planning. After 20 years, he was excited for a change of pace. After joining with Great Plains Institute, he made his next step focusing on renewable energy. A self-described “zoning geek,” Brian’s primary focus is solar and wind.