microphone on table background

Episode 44: Rob Davis

This week, Jon Powers speaks with Rob Davis, of Fresh Energy, to discuss the link between pollinator insects and solar energy. This discussion explores bees’ impact on the environment, human agriculture, and how solar farm designs can help a pollinator population in crisis.

Rob began his career working with technology start-ups and created the international crowdsourced campaign that launched the Firefox web browser. He now works as Director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy and Fresh Energy where he helps accelerate the nation’s transition to the use of clean and renewable energy. His work on pollinator-friendly solar has been featured in trainings by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Conservation Training Center, U.S. Department of Energy, the Electric Power Resource Institute, and the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center.

Listen now

Jon Powers: Welcome to Experts Only podcast, sponsored by Clean Capital. You can learn more at cleancapital.com. I’m your host, Jon Powers. Each week, we explore the intersection of energy, innovation, and finance with leaders across the industry. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jon Powers: Welcome back to Experts Only podcast. My name’s Jon Powers, your host, and today, we’re speaking with Rob Davis, the Director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy, part of Fresh Energy up in Minnesota. It’s an independent nonprofit organization. We’ll talk more about the amazing mission they have, but Rob is really great at telling the stories of pioneering people, ideas, and organizations, and at Fresh Energy, he’s helping to accelerate the nation’s transition to the use of clean and renewable energy. In this conversation, we’re specifically talking about the role of solar in helping to solve the pollinator crisis within the United States. If you’re not tracking the pollinator crisis, you should be because the honeybees, according to Rob and some of the numbers he puts in our conversation, help bring $15 billion in economic benefits to the agriculture community. It’s critical in a lot of the crops we grow, and bees are at a critical population junction right now because of issues around climate change and the environment and growth of suburban communities. So, solar can play a key role, and we’re going to talk about that today.

Jon Powers: Rob, thanks so much for joining us at Experts Only podcast.

Rob Davis: Delighted to be with you. Thanks so much.

Jon Powers: So, looking your background, you went to school in St. Paul. Did you grow up in Minnesota?

Rob Davis: I was born in Fargo, but grew up in Minnesota, and then, I came out to Boston for a couple of years. Spent a couple years living in Germany, had a first child over there.

Jon Powers: What were you doing over there?

Rob Davis: My wife helped start an English immersion Montessori school, and it was before we had kids. So, we thought, “If not now, when?” It’s nothing like just immersing yourself in another language, in another culture to really force your mind to make connections that it wouldn’t otherwise be making and really put yourself in experience of just being a fish completely out of water.

Jon Powers: Yeah. I was stationed over there in the army for four years. So, at some point, we should swap Germany stories. So, you go from St. Paul and Fargo to Boston to Germany. You have a background in communications, right? So, when you came back to the States, what were you doing then?

Rob Davis: Well, I’d spent about 15 years helping software and kind of emerging startups go from the garage to that pre-IPO stage. I really get excited about entrepreneurs and the part of the hockey stick where suddenly it goes from something that’s really nerdy and nobody cares about to something that’s immediately relevant to millions and millions of people. I really love that partnering with pioneers to help them tell their stories and connect with larger audiences. So, when I came back from Germany, the startup market was just completely dried up. There was no venture capital money, and went to work with and to lead communications for an art and design firm … excuse me, for an art and design college, and found that geeks have a lot in common with artists. So, then, kind of told the stories of those entrepreneurs for a few years, and then, was recruited by Michael Noble, my current boss at Fresh Energy, who said, “Helping individual companies and individual artists is interesting, but what about doing the same kinds of work for this industry that is just emerging in Minnesota and the Midwest, and that’s the solar energy market?”

Jon Powers: Yeah. So, that’s what brought you into solar? It was getting sort of recruited on the communications side.

Rob Davis: It was, and it was a really wide open opportunity where Michael said, “What we need is people that are helping identify the problems that we’re going to have in three or four or five years and making sure that we’re laying a groundwork to address those problems in the most authentic and powerful way we possibly can.” And the way that I’ve done communications and marketing and engagement work throughout my career is, really, it’s never been about putting lipstick on a pig. I just always have to say, “Instead of a pig, could we just make a pony or a kitten or a puppy or something?” It’s amazing when you can start at the design stage. If you build a product that naturally sells itself, you just get better results instead of just trying to sell something or spin something that is … It comes across as inauthentic and greenwashing. There’s just a lot of bad PR that’s unfortunately been done over the last dozen years.

Jon Powers: Right. Right. And obviously, especially when you have kids, it’s easy to drive yourself around a mission like solar, and we’ll talk more about pollinators here in a minute, but talk for a second about Fresh Energy and your mission there and sort of the efforts that have sort of sprouted since you first started.

Rob Davis: Yeah. It was really timed, connecting with Michael and Fresh Energy because we just had our second kid, and it turns out, we know now, that we have pediatric asthma in the family. So, as a two week old, he turned a shade of blue that isn’t compatible with staying alive. So, that really forced us to really examine our own priorities and whether we want, as a family, focused on selling the next widget or if there’s a mission-related work where we could still make a good income in the family, but then, help transform our society and our systems and our economy in ways that we’d get us better air quality and, obviously, more hospitable planet. Fresh Energy has really been an incredibly consistent and high-performing organization over the last 25 years in helping to shape and drive energy policy in a way that is both visionary and practical and is really focused on benefiting all.

Rob Davis: So, the organization’s history is really focused on Minnesota. It was Michael Noble and a bunch of environmental allies that got NSP to compromise and say that they will build the first commercial-scale wind farm between California and Denmark. This was back in 1992, ’93, and because of that, now you have Ladner and Mortenson and ATS. All of these are Minnesota companies because they had to figure out how to build giant utility wind farms in Minnesota first, and then, went on to wind projects in Texas and Iowa and then the rest of the world. So, it was clear it was an organization that really looked at ways to use economics to make transformational change, and that was an exciting that I really had to jump at.

Jon Powers: So, Fresh Energy’s focus is mostly in Minnesota, but you guys of more national work now as well, right?

Rob Davis: Yeah. The organization’s legacy has been entirely focused on Minnesota, but it has increased as the organization’s grown from two, three, four staff back in the ’90s to, now, we have more than 20, 25 people.

Jon Powers: Oh, wow.

Rob Davis: So, we still have several staff that are focused on energy efficiency and electrification and beneficial electrification, electric vehicles, et cetera, in Minnesota, and then, the work I do has really expanded to be wherever solar sighting and solar design issues are happening. So, it’s very much a national focus for the Center for Pollinators in Energy.

Jon Powers: Yeah. So, I want to come back to that in one second, but for folks that aren’t aware, Minnesota has been, really, a leader in solar. When you say that to folks that don’t know solar … and look, we’re doing this interview. I’m calling from Buffalo, New York. So, we’re not in the tropics right now. People are shocked to learn about sort of the leadership that Minnesota has put out there on things like community solar and implementation. What’s driving that, other than Fresh Energy, of course? What is the real spark that’s kept Minnesota driving forward here?

Rob Davis: The ethos that Fresh Energy has in approaching challenges is that we never have enemies. We have opponents. We have folks that we have not convinced of our worldview yet. So, it really is an organization that executes on its mission of practical and visionary energy policy, and that really manifests itself in finding nontraditional allies to help build as large a coalition for transformational change as possible. So, starting with the wind energy industry back in the ’90s, that got Xcel. I mean, Xcel Energy has now made these very ambitious commitments to be carbon neutral by 2050, and for more than 10 years, they’ve been bragging and touting the fact that they’ve been a national wind energy leader, and that’s a result of some of this policy work that Fresh Energy and others did back in the ’90s. In 2012, Fresh Energy hadn’t done any work on solar. We really hadn’t spent a dime, and then, we saw the prices falling. Michael did, and my colleagues did, and they thought “This might just be the year and the right time to use some of our unrestricted dollars to really lean forward and get some pragmatic energy policy.”

Rob Davis: And so, that year, we passed a solar energy standard, a one-and-a-half percent requirement on the state’s monopolies, as well as a bill that said the monopoly needs to have a community solar program with the following rules, and that community solar program has now gone on to become the most successful community solar program in the country because…

Jon Powers: Yeah. It’s incredible.

Rob Davis: … no regulatory cap. The size of the program is dictated by what the substations will tolerate, and it was really those two this, the solar energy standard and the community solar program, that had some of our friends and allies call us up and say, “What the heck are you guys doing? Shouldn’t all this solar be on rooftops?” And it happened that these were some farmers out in rural Minnesota that had these questions and concerns for us, and that, obviously, prompted a pretty … That sent a chill down my spine, frankly, because I knew if we had farmers that were opposed to solar, this was going to be a lot more expensive, and we were just not going to have the kinds of change. We just weren’t going to hit the vertical part of that hockey stick that’s really fun. So, we went about figuring out how to address that problem and how we could influence solar farm design to really make sure that a solar farm is designed in a way to meaningfully benefit agriculture and people in real communities.

Jon Powers: Yeah. Interesting. So, your role as the Director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy sort of came out of that vision of saying, “How do we address the needs of, for instance, the farmers?” And then, with that, what was the need for pollinators that sort of brought those two design components together?

Rob Davis: Yeah. I mean, so, we’re not a pollinator advocacy organization. We’re not a bird advocacy organization. We are an energy policy organization, and so, what we found was, in 2014, when we started this work, was that establishing low-growing flowering meadows under and around solar farms is a pretty common practice in the UK, and it was actually something that was done specifically to address sighting issues, and so, then, we called up those folks and talked to the ecologists and talked to the solar developers and figured out how to interpret and adapt that practice and import it into the United States. Obviously, one of the first things that occurred to us was that, hey, if it’s easy to put a six-by-six pollinator garden in front of the front door of a thousand-acre solar farm, then developers, some developers would prefer that. But the reality is, is that, that’s kind of going back to this lipstick on a pig, and it’s not really providing meaningful benefits. So, two big issues that the folks in agriculture have, and this really surprised us, was that they are really struggling with the topic of how to address the pollinator crisis. Populations of these pollinators are just plummeting.

Jon Powers: Add some color to that. What’s the crisis that’s driving this for you?

Rob Davis: Yeah. The crisis is that the Obama administration calculated and published research showing that honeybees alone contribute more than $15 billion of economic productivity to the agricultural sector, and that’s just the honeybees, right? So, there’s dozens and dozens and dozens of different kinds of native and wild bees, and people don’t appreciate and really don’t know because it’s not well publicized, but every single one of those clam shells of blueberries is the result of more than 600 individual visits by bees to little flowers during a particular five-week window. And the same is true for almonds. Trillions and trillions and trillions of individual visits by bees to flowers, and that’s true for every single crop that needs pollination, and so, there’s just this huge segment of our economy, of our agricultural economy, that is dependent upon these insects, and unfortunately, humans are really bad at doing pollination, but we’re really good at public policy. So, if we just create a landscape that helps to keep the bees alive, then we will just naturally get those ecosystems services, benefits for free.

Jon Powers: And for those that don’t follow this as closely, the demand of those bees is huge. The problem is the supply of them is dwindling significantly because of a variety of environmental issues. We’re not seeing the populations of bees or butterflies, or other things that utilize pollinators are getting squashed right now.

Rob Davis: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Because of some changes in the farm bill, we’ve lost more than 10 million acres of conservation land because of the rapid expansion of the suburbs and exurbs. The amount of land that’s going into that kind of development is huge. So, we’re just losing, losing millions of acres of conservation land that should be helping sustain healthy populations of pollinators. I mean, it’s as easy as just going out for a night drive, and if you’re not getting any bugs on your windscreen or on your headlights like it used to happen when we were kids, that’s a sign of a huge, huge problem because you might feel like, “Oh, that’s convenient,” but unfortunately, it’s those insects that are not just pollinating the crops, but they’re, obviously, also … They’re providing the food for all of the songbirds that we love and all of the heritage birds, like the pheasants and the quail.

Rob Davis: And so, they’re a valuable and critical part of that ecosystem, and if more and more of them are added to the endangered species act or disappear, we don’t just lose economic opportunity, we incur additional costs on ourselves. And farmers are really struggling with how to deal with that. So, we really have been partnering with them in Minnesota and more and more states to set common, flexible, science-based standards for what constitutes pollinator-friendly within the context of a solar farm. So, it’s been exciting to see that entomologists understand that solar is bringing billions of dollars of investment and that every single one of those solar farm designs could be incrementally improved in a way that is meaningful to be beneficial to pollinators.

Jon Powers: So, for those people that aren’t familiar, right, and into this every day, we’ve got solar systems, solar arrays all over the country, commercial industrial sites. Obviously, some are on rooftops. A lot are ground-mounted. We literally have to go and mow the lawn regularly throughout the year. It’s incredibly expensive for a series of reasons. Some of it has to do with people just expect to see … They think the short lawn helps the solar, which is not the case, but what you guys have so wisely discovered is that these are phenomenal opportunities, not just for the pollinators, but for the economics around the systems themselves because they can help lower some of those costs to do this. So, you’ve created a really interesting ecosystem of experts looking at this problem. You’ve got the National Renewable Energy Lab. You’ve got Aragon. Can you talk a little bit about the Inspire Initiative and how you’re seeing more and more folks sort of coming to these policies?

Rob Davis: It’s been incredibly exciting to be able to collaborate with Aragon and NREL and the scientists there that are really leading up and have been leading up this effort for a long time. The INSIRE Project, it’s an acronym, of course. It stands for Innovative Site Preparation that Reduces Impacts on the Environment or something along those lines.

Jon Powers: Right. Inspire something.

Rob Davis: Yeah. Exactly. It’s great, but one of the things it’s really looking at is the idea that a cooler vegetation, thicker vegetation under and around panels can create a cooler microclimate or avoid or prevent the heat island effect in order to help improve solar PV efficiency and potentially get more days of peak production or incrementally more days and more time of solar energy output. So, a cooler microclimate under and around solar farms isn’t really something that you can do in the California and Arizona desert, but when you’ve got high quality, black, arable soils, what an awesome opportunity to design a high performance seed mix that allows you to maximize your generation throughout the sunniest times of the year.

Jon Powers: Exciting, and so, both of these, we were talking offline before a little bit about some of the work that Aragon has put into looking at the economic benefits that these bring both to the systems, right, where you have tens of thousands, if not in some cases $100,000 plus, going annually into just mowing the lawn under the system, but also to the community around it. Can you talk a little bit about that? And it sounds like this has spun into work being done at Yale to better understand the long-term benefits of some of that data.

Rob Davis: Yeah. The number of kind of ways that a system like this, a vegetative system, a high performance vegetation mix under and around solar farms can provide exciting value, and clearly, it’s not just for wildlife, or it’s not just for managed honeybees. It’s not just, potentially, for the crop benefits that could be around, but if you’re an engineer that’s interested in peak performance, then you should really train yourself up on how the performance of the vegetation under and around the panels can positively influence the engineering of the panels themselves. So, for example, if you put an extra 12 inches of steel and move the panels about a foot higher, that’s going to cost you somewhere between 25 and 35 hundred dollars per foot, per megawatt at today’s prices. However, when you do that, then for the life of the solar project, you’re suddenly allowing the mowers to drive two to five to ten … significantly faster, I guess.

Rob Davis: So, one, you’re reducing the mower/solar collisions. You’re reducing the frequency that you have to mow. You’re providing the vegetation company with a more diverse … allowing them to choose a more diverse seed mix that grows a little bit higher because the lower stuff is pretty cheap. You’re allowing a selection of a high performance seed mix that has really deep root systems to better withstand downpours as well as droughts because those deep root systems are adding soil moisture or adding organic matter to the soil, and then, the plants are able to stay alive throughout the drought season because they’ve got increased soil moisture because you’re not selecting a turf grass mix, which has like six-inch deep roots. So, this idea of designing a system is all about low cost, low cost, low cost up front, is really resulting in high cost, high cost, high cost for the life of the project. It’s not too unlike just building a home that’s cheap but not insulating it in Minnesota or in Buffalo. It’s like, “Oh, I got a great deal on a house. I only spent $10,000 and it only cost me $8000 a month in my energy bill.”

Jon Powers: Right. Right. That’s a great way of putting it, and it’s not just for new build opportunities, but we at CleanCapital have been looking at how to retrofit our systems with this, and it’s a little bit of a different approach, but when push comes to shove, it’s a lot of the same economics and the benefits. So, Rob, talk for a second. I know you guys are putting on an event at Yale coming up April 1st. I think you’re calling Agrovoltaics. Talk for a second about what’s expected to happen at that event and some of the folks you intend to be there.

Rob Davis: Yeah. It’s going to be a fantastic evening. We’ve just got a beautiful room in the Burke Auditorium and space for around 150, and we’ve got Clif Bar and NG and Jordan Macknick from NREL and myself, and then, a number of kind of tabling partners, including the American Solar Grazing Association and the Electric Power Resource Institute and Ernst Pollinator Services that establishes these landscapes. So, it’s going to be a great event. We’re going to be talking about how to maximize agricultural productivity through collocation of different agricultural interests and pollinator friendly solar. So, one of the research projects that was built on some work that Aragon did and done by these four graduate students at the Yale School of Environmental Studies is actually looking at a given amount of land and found that it was a really non-intuitive insight. But they realized that if you take a given amount of land, and you’re already harvesting some crop from that, if you take some of that land “out of production” and put in a solar farm, and then plant pollinator dependent crops or have the farmer or encourage the farmer to plant pollinator dependent crops around the solar farm, then you’re actually increasing the net agricultural yield of that parcel compared to the same site without the solar pollinator landscape.

Rob Davis: So, it’s a really interesting way that … I mean, we see a lot of conflict right now, and particularly in kind of farmland constrained states, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, and out here in the Midwest, we’ve got 27 million acres in Minnesota, and Illinois’s got 20 million acres, but Massachusetts, they only have 500,000 acres. So, there’s more conflict between the productive use of farmland and solar development, but what we’re seeing is that, actually, solar farm design can meaningfully increase the productive use of all of the adjacent farmland, and it’s obviously not just the pollinator benefits, but one of the big challenges in agriculture that is even, I guess, nerdier and less sexy than insects and climate change is topsoil loss. And it’s just not well publicized, but the reality is, is that throughout the Midwest and the northeast, current row crops are losing topsoil at a rate of two to five tons per acre per year, and that’s just due to wind and water erosion, two to five tons per acre per year of topsoil loss. And as a solution, of course, it’s very simple. It’s just perennial vegetation, but who’s going to take a crop out of production and put in perennial vegetation? Who’s going to pay for that?

Rob Davis: A farmer needs the money, and a pollinator friendly solar farm is a great way to help kind of create a legacy for the next generation of farmers where you might even think, “Oh, well. I’m going to have a rotational solar farm. I’ll have the solar farm here for 20 years or 40 years, and then, I’ll move it to the next land after that because the soil is going to rest and rebuild and really be certifiably organic, high quality soil at the end of that solar lease.”

Jon Powers: Rob, this is fascinating. I think it’s important for folks to recognize that this is not just a boutique thing. You’ve got big firms like Cypress Creek doing really innovative stuff here. Obviously, CleanCapital’s trying to take a leadership role and get engaged. Our investment partners at BlackRock are helping us prioritize this within our own efforts. There are serious commitment to this, both because of the ecological, but also the economic benefits that this can drive. So, if you’re a solar developer, or you’re a long-term owner, then how do you get involved? How do you learn more about how you can implement these programs?

Rob Davis: So, we have a webinar. I should say, on our website, I’ll give a shortcut, which is just beeslovesolar.org. We’ve recorded more than six or eight hours of webinars, including with the US Department of Interior, US Department of Energy, the North Carolina Clean Energy Tech Center, the International Association of Sustainability Professionals. So, there’s an abundance of material and resources out there, and the key is, is that we have collaborated across the country with the nation’s foremost entomologists and experts, and so, you as a solar company, if you’re our audience, they do not want to be in the position of trying to tell consumers what’s good for pollinators. Solar development firms know what’s good for solar, and that’s where they should stay, which is great, but we, at Fresh Energy, have collaborated with these entomologists and gotten them sign off on these score cards. It’s a really simple one-page tool that helps your vegetation managers design seed mixes so that you can stand shoulder to shoulder with these highly influential entomologists and say, “Hey, the entomologists say that our entire solar project is beneficial to pollinators because we’re doing these one, two, three, four, five things.” So, it’s a flexible and fair tool that allows you to maximize the public benefits, as well as, obviously, get all of these operational benefits really, stormwater and pollinator benefits and soil retention and everything else.

Jon Powers: Yeah. Amazing. So, beeslovesolar.org, first of all, it’s amazing that was available, a great address, and if you Google Rob, you’ll find a great Ted Talk he does in Minnesota to keep you motivated. This is an issue, obviously, near and dear to my heart but also something critical for not just industry, but I think we as a nation need to help drive forward. So, Rob, thank you for your leadership on it. One final question I ask all of my folks that join me here at Experts Only, if you could go back to visit yourself in St. Paul when you’re graduating from college or from high school and could sit down and grab coffee, what advice would you give yourself?

Rob Davis: Oh, wow. That’s really fun. I would say maybe go to New York instead of Boston. It was great, but this is an exciting time in this work because it’s clear to me. I mean, I’ve been in the wireless industry. I’ve been in the open source industry. I’ve been in the database, cloud computing industry, but it’s clear to me that in three years’ time, solar pollinator for anything on arable farmland is going to be the default. And so, the companies that are moving now are getting a huge competitive advantage because they’re getting projects in the ground. They’re learning from them, and they’re hiring staff that are helping them figure this stuff out. So, if there’s solar companies out there that haven’t yet hired people, hired an intern, hired a graduate student from the Yale School to help them address these questions, they should get on that.

Rob Davis: Xcel Energy, we were delighted to partner with them just last Fall, and they said, “Hey, for all of our solar RFPs, we’re going to include, we’re going to require all of those bids to include a copy of the Pollinator Friendly Solar Score Card.” They’re a hugely influential thought leader in terms of where utilities are going, and so, it’s great to partner with them, but also with companies like NG and Eden Renewables and IPS Solar and US Solar and, really, companies that are leaning forward and saying, “Hey, we’re just going to do this everywhere, and if we have to, if we find a landscape where this can’t work, then that’ll be the exception, but we’re going to make solar pollinator the default because that’ll help us win more projects. It’ll help us learn faster, and it’ll make us a better competitor into the future.”

Jon Powers: Outstanding, Rob. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rob Davis: Great to be with you. Thank you so much.

Jon Powers: You can learn more by going to beeslovesolar.org and learn ways to get involved, and as always, you can grab more episodes of Experts Only at CleanCapital’s website, CleanCapital.com. Always looking for advice on folks we should be interviewing, and we’d like to thank our producers, Lauren Glickman, and our intern, Darnell Lubin, for helping to put these episodes together. As always, I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Jon Powers: Thanks for listening in today’s conversation. Find more episodes on CleanCapital.com, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you like what you hear, be sure to subscribe and leave us a five star review. We look forward to continuing our conversation on energy, innovation, and finance with you.