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Making green energy greener

Octopus Energy’s Becky Boulton and Jackson Howarth look to a future where wind and solar farms are buzzing with biodiversity
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Making green energy greener

This article first appeared in our COP26 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

In summer 2021, Octopus Energy acquired its sister company Octopus Renewables, which manages over 300 renewable energy projects and pumps out 2 terawatt-hours of solar and wind energy every year – enough to power around 1.5 million homes.

Its massive £3.4 billion renewables portfolio is now operated by Octopus Energy Generation, making Octopus Energy Europe’s largest investor in solar energy. It can prevent nearly 1 million tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere annually, and brings green supply, energy tech and renewable generation under one roof.

With all these wind and solar farms (and more to follow), Octopus has been thinking about other ways its renewables sites could be used to help the planet. After all, solar plants and wind farms aren’t just good for the clean, green electrons they generate – they’re also chock full of valuable green spaces, with the potential to harbour an abundance of wonderful wildlife.  

People often don’t consider the grassy areas that so often surround soaring wind turbines or glistening seas of solar panels, but there are best practices in place to ensure that these spaces are put to good use.

Each site is managed in a way that promotes biodiversity and reduces environmental damage; in fact, specific habitat management strategies must be drawn up as part of the planning permission process for each site.

There are loads of strategies, from planting wildflowers in field margins and managing land with grazing animals to hosting bird boxes and bug hotels. Many renewable operators have been going the extra mile to create habitat for UK wildlife, and Octopus Energy Generation is actively looking for ways to promote biodiversity on its sites.

Grazing at solar farms

Today one-third (and counting) of the sites managed by Octopus Energy Generation are grazed by sheep, who have been introduced to keep the long grass in check throughout the year.

This arrangement pleases herders and engineers alike – the sheep get a free meal and operators don’t have to worry about grass shading their solar panels. The more biodiverse an area is, the more living things it can sustain – and grazing benefits biodiversity in a whole host of ways.

Unlike the neat finish you expect from a lawn mower, sheep disturb the earth as they munch away, leaving a mosaic of bare ground and grassy tufts that vary in height.
This topological diversity is critical for biodiversity. If seeds land in bare patches of soil they can more easily establish themselves; in turn, this means more wildflowers can flourish and attract pollinators and other insects.

With grass growing at different levels, these sites can provide a series of different micro-habitats that provide food and shelter for a wide variety of species.

Studies have also shown that managing land with grazing can actually increase carbon sequestration. In other words, more carbon is captured and stored in the soil, preventing it from entering the atmosphere.

Soil is the world’s largest land-based carbon storage system. Grasslands make up around 40% of the Earth’s surface and soil scientists estimate that, if everybody adopted the right land management practices, we’d be able to offset around one-third of our annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

An ecological emergency

It couldn’t be a more important time to stand up for biodiversity. In 2016, the UK ranked 189th out of 218 countries in the biodiversity intactness index.

Over the last 100 years, the UK has lost 97% of its meadows and other species-rich grasslands; the lamb’s succory and the downy hemp-nettle have gone extinct and the ghost orchid and wood calamint have become critically endangered.

Populations of the UK’s most important wildlife have fallen by 60% since 1970, with numbers of farmland birds declining by over 55% and one-quarter of native mammals facing extinction.

Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are of particular concern; one-third of British bumblebee species are now on the brink of extinction. As an integral part of ecosystems everywhere, a decline in the number of pollinators is having a massive knock-on effect, impacting organisms the world over. This includes us. According to the UN, as much as $577 billion of our annual food production relies on pollination.

Building biodiversity

While the sheep help to keep things under control, grassy areas spring to life when they are left alone. Some of Octopus Energy Generation’s sites embrace a more natural approach, with patches of land set aside for rewilding. The diverse wildflower meadows that result support pollinators at every stage of their lifecycle, providing pollen and nectar resources throughout spring and summer.

For some sites, like large wind farms, this can be a fantastic way to encourage native pollinators and other insects back to sites where they haven’t been seen in years.

In other cases, especially where long grasses and tall flowers can be a fire hazard or block solar panels, this sort of large-scale rewilding is not suitable.

Octopus Energy Generation, is exploring new ways to rewild both on and off sites in the future. Operators can choose to plant carefully selected wildflower meadows, or to rewild hedgerows and field boundaries. In this way, sowing native plants such as yellow rattle, bird’s-foot-trefoil and red clover can help provide habitat for a larger variety of insects and organisms, including several endangered species of bumblebee.

Beehives, like the ones Octopus Energy Generation installed near one solar site it manages in Lincolnshire, are another good way to support pollinators. 70% of ponds have vanished from the British countryside, so creating or revitalising water features plays a vital role for a wealth of species – from toads and newts to herons and grass snakes.

There’s also the opportunity to install a wide range of natural real estate, ranging from bird and bat boxes to hedgehog homes and bug hotels.

It’s important to remember that each renewable site is unique, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting biodiversity. Smaller, urban and community-based energy generators have shown that it’s possible to support wildlife even in the middle of our busiest cities.

Repowering London’s Energy Garden project, between the capital’s rail stations, train depots, local schools, hospitals and housing estates, puts gardens alongside solar panels and battery storage. It promotes biodiversity and a sense of community alongside renewable energy, which Octopus Energy buys to supply customers through Younity, a joint venture designed to help support community energy projects like this one.

So what’s next?

As more of the UK’s power comes from renewables, ecologically minded green generators are going to become more and more important. Given the UK’s declining biodiversity, it’s vital that we all go above and beyond to support wildlife populations.

One of Octopus Energy Generation’s core missions is to protect and enhance environmental potential. It’s keen to explore new, creative ways to lend nature a hand across the renewables sites it manages and beyond – working with local communities and landowners to develop new strategies that benefit wildlife everywhere.

Together with Octopus Energy Generation, we’re excited to see what the future holds.

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