Although solar panels are an increasingly common sight across major cities all around the world, overall there’s yet to be sufficient discussion surrounding just how the introduction of solar will impact the life and operation of cities. It’s no surprise this is the case. After all, solar power is seen as a clean and green technology that's (comparatively) easy to install, maintain, and do so in a very cost-efficient way. But that doesn’t mean the greater uptake of solar is without any challenges.
For those who aspire to see increased utilization of solar technology going forward, a greater understanding of how their introduction in city installations can benefit the local ecosystem is essential, as well mindfulness of any challenges that exist in this area. In this vein, John H. Armstrong, Andy J. Kulikowski II, and Stacy M. Philpott recently published “Urban renewable energy and ecosystems: integrating vegetation with ground-mounted solar arrays increases arthropod abundance of key functional groups”, in the Urban Ecosystems international journal. This writer was very pleased to be in touch with John H. Armstrong for an interview surrounding this publication and its findings.
Thanks for your time, John. Could you tell a little bit about your background and interest in this field?
I’m an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Seattle University. I research climate change and sustainability policymaking, focusing primarily on cities and other local governments. Interdisciplinary research is critical to addressing increasingly complicated challenges, and I was pleased to undertake this study with my co-authors to investigate ecosystem implications of urban renewable energy development that is being driven in part by climate policies.
Can you give our readers a "snapshot" summary of your research?
The study, published in Urban Ecosystems, is the first to look at urban ground-mounted solar energy and biodiversity. We focused on solar parking canopies and arthropods, which serve critical roles in urban ecosystems, looking at habitat implications and possible conservation opportunities. From eight study sites in San Jose and Santa Cruz, California, we found that integrating vegetation with the solar canopies was beneficial, increasing the abundance and richness of ecologically important arthropods. In short, solar canopies can be a win-win for climate mitigation and ecosystem functioning, particularly when integrated with vegetation.
Can you explain a little more surrounding why particular aspects of it were chosen, e.g. why was a 2km radius chosen for the eight study sites that featured in this study?
We assessed a variety of local habitat and landscape factors such as distance to nearby vegetation, the number of flowers, and surrounding land cover characteristics up to 2 kilometers away. We included these and other variables based on what other studies—such as those looking at community gardens—have found can be important drivers of arthropod communities.
For anyone that is yet to fully appreciate the dynamics of renewable energy and ecosystems in urban areas, what do you think is vital for them to understand its importance?
Conserving biodiversity in urban areas is critical in providing a range of ecosystem services like air purification. Additionally, many cities are in biodiversity-rich areas that are important for endangered species. As cities increasingly take the lead on climate change, many are looking to develop ground-mounted solar energy in parking lots, fields, parks, and other open spaces.
Urban renewable energy can serve an important role in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also important to consider the implications for ecosystems and biodiversity. If development encroaches on parks and other natural areas, what effect will that have? This study shows that ground-mounted solar energy in parking lots can be ecologically beneficial, especially if vegetation is incorporated under the solar canopies. Ultimately, ecological effects of urban renewable energy should be considered and opportunities for co-benefits such as these should be sought out.
What revelations did this research hold that surprised you?
I was surprised by the abundance and diversity of arthropods under solar parking canopies, and how significant effect vegetation has regardless of other landscape factors.
Generally speaking, what do you feel public leaders are yet to fully understand or recognize the quest for greater conservation in our cities with reference to this research?
Often, the importance of biodiversity in urban environments is not recognized. As cities expand and more people live in cities, ecosystem and biodiversity conservation needs to be integrated throughout urban planning. In many cases, there can be opportunities for co-benefits.
Beyond its core conclusions, in what other areas could this research provide benefits in building our understanding?
This study brings together climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation in urban areas, indicating that there are opportunities to link climate policymaking, local economic development, and ecosystem conservation. Similarly, cities should strive to pursue multiple sustainable development goals simultaneously and to seek out co-benefits. Hopefully, this study will spur additional management consideration and research into ecosystem implications and conservation opportunities of urban renewable energy development.
Finally, its understood futurology is inexact but the utilization of parking lots in this study gives rise to a question surrounding the future of cities as it pertains to self-driving cars, the rise in the work from home phenomenon (thanks in part to the coronavirus), and Co. In what ways do you feel the change in the way in which we use space such as parking lots in the future due to the aforementioned factors could have a bearing on this research’s enduring legacy and use?
Cities are full of large impervious surfaces, which tend to be associated with negative environmental effects. Whether parking lots, bus stops, plazas, or similar, those areas may be good places to consider developing ground-mounted solar arrays, and there would likely be benefits from integrating vegetation.
The Future of Solar in our Cities
The research of John H. Armstrong and his colleagues is invaluable to all of us passionate about seeing a greater utilization of solar in the future. The solar industry has no shortage of visionaries and dreamers—and this is surely no bad thing! But undoubtedly, such visions are always at their ideal with strong and practical foundations to build them on.
When it comes to the future of cities, any new insight that enhances our understanding of how to more effectively and harmoniously integrate solar is to be commended, and hopefully implemented by city planners going forward. As we seek to see cities of the future that are clean, green, and abundant with solar panels across streetscapes, skyscrapers, public transport vehicles, and other infrastructure. comment↓
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