Solar farm creates quite the buzz: Pollinators flock to colorful crop
MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Mike Kiernan has been as busy as a bee these days. By night, he’s healing his fellow man in 12-hour shifts as a physician with Porter Hospital’s Emergency Department.
But by day, Kiernan dons a t-shirt and gloves and heads out to a solar farm where he lovingly nurtures a variety of flowers and forage aimed at attracting and feeding bees, hummingbirds and a wide variety of nature’s dwindling number of pollinators.
“This is such a ‘Vermont’ thing to do, and we are seeing some momentum,” Kiernan said on Thursday as he pulled ragweed from between the more than 90 varieties of flowers, shrubs and other plantings interspersed throughout the 3.75-acre solar farm off Route 7 in New Haven on property owned by the Russell family. The lush, verdant canopy, interspersed with explosively colored petals, coexists with the gray rows of stanchions supporting a combined total of around 2,300 sun-gobbling solar power panels.
And if Kiernan has his way, this New Haven solar farm — owned and operated by Green Lantern Group — will be one of dozens throughout the state that will ultimately host vast, rustic gardens that will collectively serve as a natural catalyst for reversing the decline of the many pollinating insects and birds so critical to the ecosystem and the success of agricultural crops.
DR. MIKE KIERNAN, owner of Bee the Change, stands in the newest solar array that he and his family have planted with forage and flowers to attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The solar array is located off Route 7 in New Haven. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Kiernan, his wife Tawnya, and their daughter Emily have appropriately dubbed the budding environmental enterprise “Bee the Change,” and they are pleased with the baby steps it has taken this year.
They organized a community planting effort at the New Haven site last February that drew around 30 people. They planted such pollinator-friendly things as elderberry, hops, oats, buckwheat, wildflowers, crimson clover, milkweed, dill, wild bergamot, geranium, asters, cosmos and Mexican sunflowers.
“In the space of a few hours, we accomplished what would have taken me three weeks,” Kiernan said.
Thursday saw Kiernan surveying the stellar crop, which Mother Nature goosed with copious amounts of rain this spring and summer. All the flora either provides food, pollen or habitat in which the larvae of pollinators can thrive and reach maturity.
Unfortunately, the rain has also given rise to invasive plant species such as ragweed and parsnip, which Kiernan extracts as best he can with his hands or a scythe.
He is also supplying some man-made housing for the pollinators. His father-in-law made a perforated wooden box that is serving as a condo for some orchard mason bees.
“An orchard mason bee will be more productive as a pollinator than 100 honeybees,” noted Kiernan, whose awe inspiring reservoir of knowledge — unhindered by sleep deprivation — allows him to recite the colloquial and Latin names for all of the plants, flowers and insects he points out to the journalist stumbling behind him.
It’s hard work that’s been paying dividends. Kiernan conducted a survey back on June 2 during which he saw six pollinators on site during a 15-minute period. On Aug. 2, it was up to 26, including plenty of honeybees and Monarch butterflies.
Patience is needed, and success will be measured in years, not weeks. In three or four years, the New Haven pollinator site will be relatively self-sustaining.
“It takes a few years to build up a population,” Kiernan said.
SAM CARLSON, DIRECTOR of project development for Green Lantern Group, stands in a solar array that his company has developed in New Haven. Green Lantern has teamed with Bee the Change to fill the solar array field with plants that will attract bees. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
His partner in the operation is Sam Carlson, Green Lantern’s director of project development.
Carlson studied at the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont. His advisor at the time was Taylor Ricketts, an esteemed pollinator researcher in his own right.
“He was the first one to turn me on to the issue of disappearing bees in the ecosystem services that are provided as pollinators and how important they are to agriculture,” Carlson said. “When I left UVM and got into the renewable energy business, I heard about (Bee the Change), and said ‘This is what we ought to do.’”
Carlson agreed to allow Bee the Change to maintain pollinator plantings at the New Haven solar farm for the next 10 years, at which time he and the Kiernans will re-evaluate the accord, which is basically an exchange of allowing the use of the land to grow pollinator plants with the expense of raising and maintaining those plants born by Bee the Change. If the arrangement becomes as successful as both parties think it will, Bee the Change could receive an extension and Green Lantern would consider pollinator plantings at its future project sites.
The company currently owns and operates 50 solar farms. It’s difficult to introduce the plantings at existing sites due to the tilling that would be involved, Carlson explained.
Bee the Change could save Green Lantern — and other solar farm developers — a good amount of money in annual site maintenance fees. Carlson estimated it would cost around $1,000 each year to mow the New Haven property if it were not hosting pollinator plantings. So as long as the greenery stays low enough so as not to obscure the panels, the solar farm operators can save some green while making green energy.
“It’s a win-win,” Carlson said, adding that while the long-term economic viability of the project is not guaranteed, “we know it’s the right thing to do.”
All of the electricity derived from the New Haven project is being reserved for the Sugarbush Resort in Warren.
It should also be noted that Green Lantern’s New Haven solar farm does not yet have a firm long-term future. The town of New Haven last year appealed the certificate of public good that the Vermont Public Service Board had awarded to the project, which began producing power this past February. The Vermont Supreme Court on Friday reversed the PSB’s decision on the certificate and ordered the panel to reconsider several aspects of Green Lantern’s application.
The Kiernans underwrote much of the upfront costs of the seeds and plantings. Mike Kiernan gave a shout-out to American Meadows of Shelburne for providing a nice deal on wildflower seed. In an effort to defray current and future costs, the Kiernans have developed a line of merchandise — and they’ve put the bees to work at two on-site hives so they can earn their keep.
Daughter Emily has been particularly involved in product development for Bee the Change. The crew has established a website, beetheechangehoney.com, at which people can buy a wide range of items including honey, lip balm, stamped bracelets, decals, t-shirts, pollinator gardener kits, and candles. Look out soon for Bee the Change hats and vests that will be insulated with the fleece from milkweed pods. The Burlington-based company Skida — founded by Middlebury College grad Corinne Prevot — is making some Bee the Change headbands.
The New Haven solar farm is Bee the Change’s true pilot project. But the sky’s the limit as far as the future cross-pollination of pollinator places.
“This shows what we’re up to, really well,” Kiernan said.
“We’re at that point where next year we’ll probably be looking at seven fields,” Kiernan said. “That’s probably the point where we’ll be able to afford an employee.”
Ultimately, Kiernan wants to see pollinator plantings introduced far beyond the scope of solar farms, such as under utility lines and along highways.
“Right now, I have a number of fields that are working at it and a number of fields that are signing up,” Kiernan said, specifically citing a potential demonstration project beneath a solar project slated for the Rock Point Center in Burlington. He’s consulting with a group in Brattleboro on the subject.
Bee the Change is also working with the Vermont Department of Corrections to place some bee hives on prison grounds and plant demonstration pollinator gardens nearby that inmates could tend and learn skills to enhance job opportunities when they are released.
“We are in the process of discovering what this is going to be,” Kiernan said of Bee the Change. “The challenge of making this something that sustains and happens everywhere, it’s got to be some kind of private-public partnership.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]
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