Solar panels provided 256 gigawatts of electricity worldwide in 2015, with their use constantly increasing in a push to move towards carbon-free energy production.
But what about the affect of solar panels on local microclimate? This was not known, so researchers from Lancaster University studied the environment in a solar panel park and compared it to a solar panel-free area nearby.
The study, published in Journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that solar parks can cool the surrounding area up to 5.2°C (9.4 °F) during the summer and up to 1.7°C (3.1°F) in winter. The humidity is also affected, which, combined with the temperature variation, affects biomass diversity and soil microclimate.
“Solar parks are appearing in our landscapes but we are uncertain how they will affect the local environment,” said lead author Dr Alona Armstrong in a statement. “This is particularly important as solar parks take up more space per unit of power generated compared with traditional sources. This has implications for ecosystems and the provision of goods, for example crops, and services, such as soil carbon storage. But until this study we didn’t understand how solar parks impacted climate and ecosystems.”
Understanding the environmental impacts of solar panels can ensure that we get more than just low-carbon energy from the land they occupy. The placement of solar panels can be planned in conjunction with crops that need shade or less humidity, maximizing the economic and environmental benefit of the land.
“This understanding becomes even more compelling when applied to areas that are very sunny that may also suffer water shortages,” continued Armstrong. “The shade under the panels may allow crops to be grown that can’t survive in full sun. Also, water losses may be reduced and water could be collected from the large surfaces of the solar panels and used for crop irrigation.”
The findings may make solar panel investment even more appealing, as with careful planning you can do more than just produce electricity with them.