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  Biodiversity and solar farms: risks and opportunities Ref: 5099


   Department of Geography

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  Dr Jonathan Bennie, Prof R McDonald  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

Location: The academic supervisors are based at the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus in Penryn, Cornwall, and field work will be undertaken in South-East England – the balance between time spent at each location will be discussed at offer stage and during the project. 

The University of Exeter’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences is inviting applications for a PhD studentship fully-funded by EDF to commence on 1st June 2024 or as soon as possible thereafter. For eligible students the studentship will cover Home or International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £9,311 for the project duration, pro rata for part-time study. The student would be based in the Centre for Geography and Environmental Science in the Faculty of Environment, Science and Economy at the Penryn Campus in Cornwall, with fieldwork at the Longfield solar farm in Essex. This is a 6 year part-time PhD studentship and will particularly suit part-time study by those working in a relevant sector.

Project Description:

In recent years there has been a surge in solar farm developments, driven by the need to transition to renewable energy sources and thereby reduce carbon emissions and limit global warming. Solar farms present both opportunities and risks for biodiversity and conservation, although there are many evidence gaps. This project will focus on measuring the impacts of solar farm developments on key environmental indicators, including the composition of vegetation and invertebrate communities, soil quality and carbon stocks. The studentship will provide opportunities for training in a wide range of ecological survey techniques, to improve our understanding of the ecological impacts of solar farms and to develop appropriate management regimes to maximise their biodiversity potential.

Environmental indicators will be monitored in a longitudinal study at a large solar farm development site in Essex. Measurements of vegetation structure, invertebrate diversity and soil quality will be taken before, during and after development over a period of six years. Experimental plots will be used to monitor these indicators under different management regimes that could be applied in the context of this and other operational solar farms. There will be the opportunity to expand the study to other solar farm sites if required. The student will be directly involved in the design of the study, including the choice of measurements to take, which management approaches to test, and in the collection of data from the field. In addition, a cross-sectional study will involve collection of data on environmental indicators at a series of other solar farm sites at varying stages in their development. Comparative measurements at control sites in adjacent agricultural land will allow an assessment of the potential for solar farm developments to enhance biodiversity and carbon storage relative to the likely alternative land-use.

The project is funded by leading energy business EDF, and will be delivered through a collaboration between the University of Exeter (Centre for Geography and Environmental Science and the Environment and Sustainability Institute) and RSK Biocensus (https://rskbiocensus.com/), a sector-leading and forward-thinking ecology and sustainability consultancy. RSK Biocensus will provide supporting technical knowledge in habitat management, ecological surveys and monitoring, and opportunities for the student to gain experience working in a commercial consultancy environment, including participating in the collection of data in the field.

The studentship will be awarded on the basis of merit for 6 years of part-time study to commence on 1 June 2024. The collaboration involves a project partner who is providing funding and other material support to the project, this means there are special terms that apply to the project, these will be discussed with Candidates at Interview and fully set out in the offer letter. Full details will be confirmed at offer stage.

Entry requirements

Applicants for this studentship must have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK, in an appropriate area of science or technology. Experience in ecological survey techniques and botanical and/or invertebrate identification is an advantage.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the required level as per our guidance at https://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/apply/english/

For Further information and How to apply - see this link: Award details | Funding and scholarships for students | University of Exeter

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents. 

• CV

• Letter of application (outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake the project).

• Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained (this should be an interim transcript if you are still studying)

• Names of two referees familiar with your academic or professional work. You are not required to obtain references yourself. We will request references directly from your referees if you are shortlisted.

• If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your proficiency in English.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 10th May 2024. 

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email [Email Address Removed] or phone +44 (0)1392 722730 or +44 (0)1392 725150 Project-specific queries should be directed to the main supervisor.


Agriculture (1) Architecture, Building & Planning (3) Biological Sciences (4) Computer Science (8) Engineering (12) Environmental Sciences (13) Geography (17)

Funding Notes

For eligible students the studentship will cover Home or International tuition fees plus an annual tax-free stipend of at least £9,311 for the project duration, pro rata for part-time study. This is a 6 year part-time PhD studentship and will particularly suit part-time study by those working in a relevant sector.

Where will I study?