NextEnergy Solar Fund’s growing UK network of solar farms provides an opportunity to use land in a unique way over an extended time period. NextEnergy Solar Fund is seizing this opportunity by creating biodiversity ‘hubs’ that benefit many different stakeholders and the planet as a whole.
NextEnergy Solar Fund is leading the industry and supporting the Global Goal for Nature’s targets of “nature-positive by 2030”, and “nature-recovery by 2050”, by creating stepping stones for biodiversity, establishing best practice, and introducing innovations that enhance, rather than deplete, agricultural land. Our hubs produce multiple benefits such as:
NextEnergy Solar Fund’s overall approach to biodiversity seeks to align with the UK Government’s 25 year Environment Plan. The Fund is part of the Taskforce for Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) forum and is working towards testing and aligning with the Nature-Related Risk & Opportunity Management and Disclosure Framework, which draws upon the Natural Capital Protocol as a fundamental concept for understanding nature across the NextEnergy Solar Fund portfolio.
NextEnergy Solar Fund acknowledge the challenge and evolving standards associated with measuring biodiversity using quantifiable metrics. In addition to using the Defra Metric, the Fund is working with experts on establishing a number of additional indicators from which to measure change from a baseline. NextEnergy Solar Fund plans to utilise these metrics to measure its year-on-year progress and to ensure that it is adhering to, and in many cases exceeding, the Environment Act 2021 mandatory requirement to achieve a 10% biodiversity net gain.
To further deliver on biodiversity opportunities in line with our mission, we are following two routes which are above and beyond the typical regulatory minimum expectations:
NextEnergy Solar Fund works in line with applicable local, regional and national regulations, and with local councils and environmental bodies. The Fund listens to local communities and conservation groups.
NextEnergy Solar Fund does this through many different approaches:
UBMPs were designed to incorporate management prescriptions with proven conservation outcomes. These could then be applied to selected sites to maximise biodiversity benefit. This scalable approach allowed us to ensure that our operational asset base would benefit from successful management outcomes demonstrated on our Exemplar sites. At present, 30 of our sites implement UBMPs, which include a range of tried and tested management prescriptions to help them prioritise biodiversity, and 15 more are due to introduce UBMPs within the next 12 months.
The actions mandated in UBMPs are designed to:
• Maximise biodiversity net gain using a scalable and low risk management approach;
• Adopt innovative management and monitoring as standard best practice;
• Be easily implemented by our approved specialist contractors;
• Maintain, build on and improve biodiversity and natural capital value across our existing operational assets.
All UBMP sites are assessed by third-party ecology advisers who help specialist contractors to implement the plan
We have also created six biodiversity Exemplar sites, which each follow a bespoke biodiversity plan with carefully considered objectives appropriate to the local conditions.
Exemplar sites are dedicated to innovative techniques and pilot studies to increase our knowledge and evidence-base in the field of asset management, with a view to maximising the value of our biodiversity ‘hubs’ for local stakeholders.
This builds on our experience in managing solar assets to push the boundaries of ecological best-practice with an aim to identify and feedback learning outcomes, where appropriate, into LEMPs and UBMPs. Monitoring is a key part of an exemplar site to ensure research, development and innovation are evidenced and positive outcomes are adopted.
We are set to create two more Exemplar sites over the next 12 months.
We are unashamedly passionate about our hubs, but also clear that they offer a way to maximise the value of our assets, secure our licence to operate in local communities and raise the bar for biodiversity enhancement on solar sites.
NESF understands the potential to achieve Biodiversity Net Gain on our sites and our ambition is to quantify this across our operational assets as well as our pipeline. Our approach to assessment and governance is underpinned by the mitigation hierarchy, where avoidance is the first and most important step to prevent harm to biodiversity of greatest conservation concern. Offsetting is only pursued as a last step in the mitigation hierarchy.
We apply the mitigation hierarchy principle in assessment and decision making across the investment lifecycle, from mergers and acquisitions to planning, development, construction and operational management of our assets.
NESF deploys LEMPs to manage and achieve conservation gains, whilst our UBMP programme focuses on increasing the biodiversity benefit to existing operational assets, ensuring our positive management outcomes and innovative approaches are adopted across from our Exemplar sites.
Externally we enlist the help of Wychwood Biodiversity, a UK-based company working worldwide with organisations to improve biodiversity on their land, and Twig, a company that provides solar farm maintenance.
During 2022, NextEnergy Capital appointed a new Environmental Impact Manager to our Investment Team to help us improve the way we value our natural capital. We include proven biodiversity solutions for preserving and enhancing biodiversity in our proposals for all new investments.
NextEnergy Capital’s SPV Director, Sulwen Vaughan, chairs the Natural Capital Group set up by Solar Energy UK (“SEUK”) – a trade association for solar generation and storage with over 300 members. The Natural Capital Group has produced Natural Capital Best Practice Guidance.
This explains how well-designed solar farms can help reverse depletion in 60% of British wildlife species (15% of which are at risk of extinction) by directly enhancing local animal habitats and wildlife, while also providing renewable, low-cost energy. The guidance reinforces our belief that investment in natural assets at our sites will help land recover from intensive farming, enable the natural environment to flourish, and build community support for our activities.
A biodiversity management plan has been tailored to the unique conditions of each exemplary site. Engagement with our landowners, operation and management contractors, and the community has proved vital, as these stakeholders have the closest relationships with the asset and its surrounding environment.
As the first annual survey results from our sites are being compiled, we are seeing a notable increase in the abundance of pollinating insects against the year zero baseline.
Looking at the industry as a whole, the short term focus should be on maturing the our approach to land management.
This will require wholesale adoption best practice guidelines, and require operation & management and asset management teams to upskill their operatives and subcontractors.
Correct operational planning can show some operational expenditure improvements too, adding a degree of commercial logic to actioning rapid change.
Initial measures should include strip grass cutting (cutting only beneath the panels and leaving the rest of the site long), seasonal sheep grazing, spot weed treatment, alternative side hedge maintenance (every 3 years), alongside the creation of simple habitat improvements such as hibernacula, bird/bat boxes and solitary bee and bug hotels.
The exemplary sites are the initial steps in a long process, and provide a test bed for creative measures. Some of the broader objectives we are pursuing include the introduction of bee hives onto our land, alongside native wild flowers.
We are working on creating small and managed ponds to create homes for dragonflies and amphibians. We are also working on local cropping, and are currently piloting the growth of crops that can be harvested without impact on solar asset operations.
This is designed to support the surrounding community and its various cottage industries, be it by donating what is grown or in engaging community members in the crop and therefore the solar asset.
The future ambition is two-fold. Firstly, further engagement with surrounding landowners, whose wealth of localised knowledge should be brought forward to create mutually beneficial measures.
Secondly, we should create partnerships with key stakeholders and the education system to deliver creativity and monitoring.
It is clear that as a society we have some way to go before fulfilling the aims set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environmental Plan, but our industry can and should be a forerunner in supporting the ambition of leaving a better environment for the next generation and creating a symbiotic relationship between power generation and biodiversity.
However, we need affirmative action and not just hollow words. As a responsible business it is our ambition to deliver on this plan.