Utility-scale developer Lightsource bp prioritizes environmental stewardship in the communities it’s working in, whether that’s through planting pollinator-friendly ground cover underneath arrays or paying local farmers to maintain the land using their flocks of sheep. Oil and gas company bp invested in Lightsource in 2017 and helped the company expand its solar footprint into the United States.
In this episode, Alyssa Edwards, Lightsource bp’s VP of environmental affairs and government relations, talks about the company’s work with the Dept. of Energy to research sustainable solar site management and pave the way for new standards to elevate the entire solar industry. An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast for more insight on new opportunities for co-locating solar and food crops.
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SPW: Tell me how you got into solar.
Alyssa Edwards: It’s kind of been a journey. I’ve always been interested in the environment and climate, I think, even before it was really vogue to do so. I really set my whole education around it. My undergrad is in environmental science. My master’s is an environmental economics. I always followed Al Gore back in the day, and I just always saw [climate change] as such a huge crisis for humanity.
It’s funny, though, because when I graduated from grad school in 2005, I remember I have an uncle who came up to me and said, ‘What are you going to do with that degree? That’s, like, totally worthless.’
And it’s just funny because thinking about like, the trends and the thinking around 2005 to now has really changed.
Can you give me the CliffsNotes on Lightsource and its relationship with oil and gas company bp?
Lightsource is a privately held company. We’re a 50/50 joint-venture with bp. We were formed in 2010 in the UK, so we’ve been solar developers for over a decade. And we’ve really grown to a global leadership position. We have almost 1,000 team members across 18 countries, which is pretty amazing.
Since bp’s first investment, Lightsource bp’s activities have expanded. We used to be in five countries, now we’re in 18 countries, including the U.S. In 2021, bp acquired 9 GW of solar projects from 7X Energy, and we are taking those assets and developing them and putting them into construction and operation. We’ve grown tremendously over the past decade, so it’s, it’s been, really cool to be on that journey.
You wrote a series about the importance of environmental stewardship in solar development, especially utility-scale solar development. Tell me why that’s important to you, and about some of Lightsource bp’s efforts to be environmental stewards.
When I joined Lightsource in 2020, in the U.S., we were still pretty young, but we knew that we wanted to tell a different story with solar, which is adding on benefits beyond clean, renewable energy. The way we look at solar facilities, we start with the vegetation underneath and around the panels. If you’ve ever been to a solar facility, you know that the footprint is actually extremely light. There’s all this available land underneath and around the panels where we can really add biodiversity and ecosystem benefit. So we start with large-scale vegetation installations underneath and around the array. We work with internal and external experts to curate seed mixes that are planted there to provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. That’s like our standard offering — we do that on every single project. We put a lot of thought and creativity into how we can grow vegetation that is beneficial, but also is compatible with the solar operations, related to height and fire risk. And then from there, we look to add other benefits. So we might consider habitat creation, we might, outside the array, do high-value pollinator gardens, so big, lush, beautiful pollinator gardens that support pollinator species.
We might add other types of habitats that support birds and bats, reptiles, things like that. And then from there, we see if we have an opportunity for agrivoltaics. We have quite a few projects now in the U.S. that have sheep grazing underneath and around the panels. Sheep grazing also contributes to biodiversity, the sheep waste, the compaction of the soil, just the act of grazing itself is incredibly beneficial for habitat and vegetation. And there’s lots of social benefits to that as well, because, local farmers, we pay them to essentially manage the land for us. It offers a diversified revenue to farmers in rural areas, which is great. So we love that there’s a biodiversity and a social nexus there.
And we’re looking at other types of agrivoltaics as well. We’re looking at partnering with the Dept. of Energy on some research to grow food crops underneath solar panels. So, you know, we always say on my team that the possibilities are endless, it just takes creativity, a lot of thought and a lot of science and sort of a willingness to see what kind of multi-use opportunities there are for solar. It’s a pretty fun job that I have to sort of come up with these ideas. Every project is different in terms of what benefits can be added and what makes sense in different eco regions.