Sustainability takes root at Sarnia solar farm

Enbridge facility launches native plant restoration project

A unique project planned for unused portions of Enbridge’s Sarnia Solar Project is about to restore the landscape to its native form – and give the Ontario facility an even greater degree of sustainability.

Enbridge has partnered with Return the Landscape, a native plant rescue and restoration organization – and over the next five years, Enbridge will spend $100,000 naturalizing and restoring habitat on a 200-acre parcel of land within the 1,100-acre solar farm, which is one of the largest such facilities in Canada.

The areas to be restored can’t be used for photovoltaic panels or any other purpose, and Enbridge representatives felt this was a perfect opportunity to return the areas to nature.

“This is a multi-year project that is beneficial for the environment and provides learning opportunities for local youth,” says Ian MacRobbie, general manager for Enbridge’s Green Energy, Power Transmission and Emerging Technologies division in Ontario and Quebec.

Prior to its transformation to a solar energy facility, this piece of land in southwestern Ontario was used for farming. While little remains of a natural wetland, valuable woodland is still intact and boasts some massive hickory trees. These areas will now be restored to their former glory, and those endangered plants that are left will be preserved.

(April 2016 update: The Sarnia Solar Farm has captured a Go Green Award from the City of Sarnia for its work with Return the Landscape)

“It’s a game changer,” says Return the Landscape’s Shawn McKnight of this opportunity to advance education around the interconnectedness of plants, animals and ecosystems.

An inventory of the site has yielded impressive results, with the discovery of 84 different native wetland species of plants.

McKnight, a co-founder of Return the Landscape, explains that ecosystems are altered when non-native plant species are introduced and allowed to grow out of control, typically through urbanization and development.

When this happens in a wetland, where birds nest or butterflies feed, the process can have disastrous consequences – and lead to their disappearance, too.

Now that Return the Landscape has performed its inventory on Enbridge’s solar farm site, invasive species such as phragmites will be removed. These towering reeds are destroying wetlands across Ontario and other parts of North America, upsetting the nesting habitats of ducks and degrading fish and wildlife habitat.

Once they are eradicated, they will be replaced with native vegetation grown from seeds collected at the site. It will take up to five years to fully restore the area, but the program will require almost no maintenance.

Schoolchildren who already tour the Sarnia Solar Project to learn about clean, renewable energy will also soon learn about natural heritage through the plant restoration project.

“This property is going to have all kinds of things to show,” says McKnight. “To have major industry champion this — it’s awesome.”