24 May 2018

Researcher wins a fellowship to help policy makers and businesses enhance the socio-economic and environmental benefits from wind and solar installations

Renewable energy expert Dr Alona Armstrong likes to look for the positive in her work. Renewable energy installation can provide biodiversity hotspots, or offer opportunities for food production and economic development, she explains, but these often get overlooked.

“The language of ecological assessments for renewable energy projects is all about minimising harmful effects and says relatively little about increasing the positive effects,” says Alona, a Lecturer in Energy & Environmental Sciences at the Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University.

Yet wind and solar could provide an opportunity to enhance the natural environment, for example by converting low grade agricultural land into species rich meadows, providing habitats for wildlife and promoting soil carbon sequestration.

“My drive is towards ensuring renewable energy production delivers benefits beyond that of low carbon energy wherever possible,” says Alona, a member of Energy Lancaster.

Alona has been awarded an Industrial Innovation Fellowship by the Natural Environment Research Council.

The three and a half year Fellowship, supported through the National Productivity Investment Fund, is given to ‘research leaders of the future, enabling some of the UK's most talented researchers to undertake major new innovation oriented and intellectual endeavours aligned with the industrial strategy.’

It will build on the work she has been doing for the past two years, leading the NERC Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services (SPIES) project, with Piran White from the University of York. Together with a broad range of stakeholders, they have developed a decision support tool to help regulators and the solar energy industry maximise the broader environmental benefits of solar parks.

“Solar parks are long-term, secure places, the land is paid for and the cost of managing them well for biodiversity and nature is small compared to the cost of setting up the park,” she explains.  “The feedback we’ve had from stakeholders has been very positive, people really like the tool”

The Fellowship will enable Alona to develop further understanding of the interaction between renewable energy and the hosting environment at site, local and national scale.  This will help inform decisions about how to manage onshore wind and solar sites and where to locate them, taking into account a suite of energy, environment and socio-economic factors.

“Wind and solar take up a greater land area than traditional power stations, and have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the hosting landscape,” Alona explains. “Therefore, deciding the design, management and location of wind and solar across the UK is pivotal; poor decisions could miss environmental win-wins or swap the global-scale climate change impacts of energy for localised environmental damage.

“Is using pasture land in Yorkshire preferable to low grade agricultural land in Wiltshire? In areas where both are viable, is solar or wind preferable?” These are the kind of questions Alona is aiming to answer.

Alona will collaborate with industry and policy stakeholders, including UK Government departments, local authorities and renewable energy companies, ensuring the tools she develops work in practice. She’ll also collaborate with other UK academics and visit leading researchers in California and Naples to gain insight into approaches used in other countries.