Managing solar parks for nature: delivering to the climate and ecological emergencies

15 Jul 2020

Authors: Dr Alona Armstrong, Lancaster University; and Prof Piran White, University of York

Opportunity or threat

For decades, scientists have warned of the dangers of climate change. Yet only now are we starting to see the emergence of meaningful action. An increasing number of nations, regional and local authorities, businesses, and individuals across the world are making net-zero commitments. Fulfilling these commitments will trigger an inevitable land-use change for renewable energy; even with significant offsetting, which is undesirable for many reasons, there is no avoiding this – renewable energy takes up more space per GW generated than conventional sources.

At the same time, there is increasing awareness of biodiversity declines and the growing environmental crisis.  The UK government now stipulates the need for ‘net environmental gain’ from infrastructure and development projects. We know that land-use change is the biggest cause of the decline in nature, over and above the impact of climate change. Where does this leave us – are there dark times ahead or can we make the transformation to a brighter future?

Clean energy and biodiversity gain from solar parks

Solar parks offer an untapped opportunity to help restore the UK’s ecosystems as well as providing low carbon energy for all to enjoy. Five characteristics engender solar parks as good places for nature.

  • Longevity – they will be in the landscape for 25-40 years.
  • Secure & undisturbed – with the exception of maintenance vehicles solar parks are secure places with limited disturbance.
  • Paid for – the land is paid for and thus there is no pressure to generate further income.
  • Landscape – they are often in agricultural landscapes, where nature enhancements are needed most.
  • Climate – the physical presence of the arrays provides climatic niches.

But how do we capitalise on the potential to reap ecosystem gains from solar parks?

The SPIES tool

Collaborative research between Lancaster University, University of York, the solar industry, the farming community, and nature conservation bodies produced the Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services (SPIES) decision support tool. The free-to-use SPIES tool provides an accessible, transparent, and evidence-based means of informing management actions on and around solar parks. SPIES is an interactive summary of the impacts of land management on ecosystem services and biodiversity, underpinned by over 700 pieces of evidence from over 450 peer-reviewed articles. Critically, the tool shows the amount and consistency of the evidence, allowing users to infer the likelihood of a specific impact where evidence is limited. Users can access the source of the evidence and a brief summary, assuring transparency and enabling users to check the evidence is relevant to their goals and navigate to the underpinning scientific articles if required.

The benefits

The SPIES tool offers benefits to different user groups in the following ways:

  • The solar industry: SPIES provides a robust evidence base for informing site development and management decisions, assuring alignment with relevant policies.
  • Local authorities: SPIES acts as a valuable information source on the potential benefits and detrimental impacts of the development, informing decisions as to whether it delivers to net environmental gain as specified in the National Planning Policy Framework.
  • National Government: SPIES provides an example of a tool that could be used to inform land management decisions, and provide evidence for post-Brexit legislation and the meeting of environmental targets.
  • Farmers: SPIES highlights site management options that will enhance ecosystem services, increasing the farmers’ opportunities to qualify for public goods payments.


The SPIES tool has been used commercially by Wychwood Biodiversity to assess the potential for large-scale solar farms to supply ecosystem services, and to assess how changes to land management could improve this supply. Wychwood has used SPIES to work with solar site owners and operators to understand how future changes to land management could influence ecosystem service delivery. Prior to the launch of the tool, assessment of ecosystem services was restricted to a subjective judgement based upon the most prominent habitat types on-site and limited evidence that linked a few common habitats to the most prominent ecosystem services. SPIES means that a site’s potential for ecosystem services can now be readily evaluated based on up-to-date scientific evidence. Moreover, the tool can be used to compare alternative site management plans to optimise ecosystem service delivery.

Find out more

For more information, including an overview animation, narrated 4 min slide set introduction, briefing paper, screen capture walk-through, associated peer-reviewed journal article, and log-in details for the SPIES tool, click here.

The SPIES tool is a collaboration between Dr. Alona Armstrong at Lancaster University and Prof Piran White at the University of York, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/N016955/1 & NE/R009449/1). The web-based version of the SPIES tool was developed by Simomics Ltd.