Scaling biodiversity

Conversation between Rasmus Vincentz from Habitats and Michael Vater from Better Energy.

Solar is unique as a renewable power source because it can combine clean energy production and native species and habitat conservation. With careful research and planning, we can develop solar park sites that help restore and conserve nature, increase biodiversity and support healthy ecosystems.

In close collaboration with biodiversity specialist Habitats, Better Energy develops and designs landscaping schemes for solar parks that spur biodiversity.

In this conversation, CEO of Habitats Rasmus Vincentz and Executive Advisor of Development, Michael Vater from Better Energy share some thoughts on their initiatives.

How did your collaboration come about?

MICHAEL: Ever since we started Better Energy, we wanted to bring more to communities than just renewable energy production. Use one piece of land for multiple purposes in a way that benefits the local area. We worked with different models, combining solar parks with agriculture, beekeeping and sheep grazing. Biodiversity for us is really another form of multiple use.

RASMUS: Habitats began working on this back in 2010 or 2011 in recognition of the fact that the biodiversity crisis was just as important as the climate crisis. We connected with Better Energy in 2019 and we moved quickly from thoughts to action. We started our collaboration in Blangslev which was already being constructed.

Key challenges and learnings from Blangslev so far?

MICHAEL: Biodiversity planning needs to be part of early project development. That was actually one of the first learnings from our pilot project in Blangslev – the earlier we think in biodiversity the better.

RASMUS: Patience. Things take time. It’s really hard to get land intensively used for monoculture to host rich biodiversity.

MICHAEL: Many people we meet think of a planted field, mono-culture, as wild nature. I didn’t know anything about biodiversity when we started. I have a completely new view of it now. It was a huge eye-opener for me to walk around Blangslev and see yellow butterflies and yellow flowers and think, gosh, that’s what we’ve been missing.

RASMUS: We tested a new tool at Blangslev that provides an overview of the biodiversity in the area and makes a projection of how it could develop. This process has given us some valuable knowledge and experience. Year two shows that some species are going forwards, and some are going backwards. We have to continue to adjust and raise the bar. That’s the way biodiversity initiatives have to be. We don’t know how we’ll end up.

MICHAEL: For me, the important part is not which methodology we use but that we actually can measure our progress and adjust. Because I really do want that yellow butterfly to be there and I really want that salamander to thrive. We believe that we have made the best conditions and prerequisites for it to succeed. It’s important that we execute some more projects and gain some more experience.

How do you work with biodiversity?

MICHAEL: Well, the first step is to ensure it’s possible. Often, we run into restrictions in land use or zoning regulations, or the wishes of the landowner. And sometimes the area is simply too small. We work with it whenever it’s an option.

RASMUS: When we plan a new initiative, we don’t set targets for specific kinds of species. Instead, we create favourable conditions for wild nature to thrive. There’s no guarantee. Nature is unpredictable and complex. You have to read and orchestrate the development along the way in a kind of ‘dance with the landscape’.

People also have a role to play. For us, we haven’t restored nature until people are a part of it. Nature isn’t a machine you fix. We use these initiatives to adjust our view, understanding, storytelling and role in nature. The ultimate goal is not to improve the statistics of one species or another. The ultimate goal is to find out how we can have a good, modern life interacting with rich nature.

MICHAEL: That’s also a part of our efforts – to get people think-ing. The way we work with nature is not a mechanical process. A huge element of our work is fostering an understanding about what nature really is.

We introduce biodiversity and other nature initiatives in early dialogues with local communities. We show them the project plan from Blangslev park as an example. We can never recreate the same project in another place, but we can certainly make an impact and offer something unique for a particular area.

RASMUS: The local community’s knowledge and wishes are important for the biodiversity initiatives in the parks. We can learn about the history of the area and the kinds of animals they see. It is all about co-existing with nature, not about separating from nature. People are such an important part of the equation if we want biodiversity initiatives to be scalable.

What does good look like?

RASMUS: People should feel invited inside, welcome, so they learn something and want to spread the word. We don’t have to go after the ultimate solution, the greatest mass, the highest number of unusual species every time. Then it won’t succeed. People have to be able to see themselves in it and play a role in it.

MICHAEL: We’re planning a solar park where over 100 hectares will be designed as wild nature or recreational areas. It will be our biggest biodiversity project to date, and everyone is on board – neighbours, local authorities and civic groups. The area will be home to forest trails, shelters, dog parks, restored streams and dedicated biodiversity initiatives for certain species. It’s a dynamic process.

RASMUS: We’re definitely on a shared mission. On a cultural level, we hope to spread this idea of co-existence to the broader public. The solution to the biodiversity crisis is not to simply roll back nature to how it used to be. We have to roll it forwards to something we don’t know yet. We can’t solve that with one solar park project, but we can contribute to being a part of that solution.

MICHAEL: I hope after we have done many projects around Denmark, a whole other consciousness develops in the everyday debate about what nature can be.

The ultimate success is when we can see results that these stepping stones in the landscape actually have an effect for nature.

There are actually yellow butterflies and salamanders. We have made habitats for animal species that aren’t doing well out there. That’s why we’re doing it.

I hope our work becomes a benchmark in our industry, also when we move the concept abroad. It would be great if the work we do with biodiversity, co-existence with nature, and community engagement became an industry standard.

How do you scale biodiversity efforts?

RASMUS: Start with the conditions and work up. Nature is so incredibly varied. You have to respect that. There’s a rational analysis in our approach, but there’s also a sense for nature that we have to train.

The important point is not how many people work with biodiversity; it’s how they work with it. Biodiversity can’t be a box you check off. Efforts have to be ambitious and transformative. Otherwise, we will be making a huge mistake that is unforgivable.

MICHAEL: Holistic thinking will bring success in the long run. I believe we will end up producing more green energy overall by having biodiversity as a part of our business model.

Good business goes hand in hand with good initiatives. It has to be a business or it’s not scalable. The potential is infinitely great. Take full responsibility for the effect you have on an area and try your best to leave a positive mark.