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Can the world build the solar power it needs without harming nature?

In World
February 20, 2024

Competing interests at play

On the surface, the most wildlife-friendly practice may seem obvious.

“If you start with a site that has really no conservation value – it’s cleared, it’s degraded, whatever – then everything you do at that point is a win,” said Dr Liz Kalies, an ecologist who studies clean energy for The Nature Conservancy and works in North Carolina, where forests have been felled to make way for solar.

Pollinators such as bees, for example, can benefit from solar facilities that replace crops treated with pesticides, especially when the new installations include native species (nearby crops can benefit, too). In Kentucky, a solar farm is going up at the site of a former coal mine.

But for developers, it is not so easy. Getting permits and financing for work on former industrial sites can be tricky because of risks including leftover toxic waste. Rural communities sometimes oppose the conversion of agricultural areas to solar, arguing that arable land should be protected for food security and to maintain the economic health of farming towns.

And crucially, developers need to be able to move the electricity, which makes the availability of transmission infrastructure paramount to any site.

“While it would be nice to think that there’s all of these low-conflict areas that developers could just go build on and everybody would leave them alone, in reality that’s not how things work,” said Mr Tom Vinson, vice-president of policy and regulatory affairs at the American Clean Power Association, which represents utility-scale solar developers. “There’s always competing interests out there.”

Potential solar sites are so ecologically varied that federal guidelines on wildlife and habitat would not be appropriate, he said. And solar developers already take precautions for animals and plants that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, the intensive care unit for wildlife.

Fences make good neighbours

All kinds of energy development exact a toll on all kinds of plants and animals.

Oil and natural gas reduce habitat and can cause pollution, including catastrophic spills.

They also drive climate change, which is expected to replace habitat loss as the leading threat to the world’s biodiversity in future decades.

Wind turbines come with bird and bat collisions, though many of those deaths can be minimised, and the infrastructure does not take up much space. Anecdotes abound of elk and pronghorn strolling around turbines or napping in their shade.

Solar farms need much more land per unit of energy. While they are projected to take up a tiny fraction of the area dedicated to agriculture, they come on top of that, and on top of land occupied by cities, towns, roads and all kinds of industries.

Up to one-third of potential solar development in the United States could overlap with areas that have high value for wildlife movement, according to one study, as animals move to adapt to climate change. (Rooftop and other small-scale solar can go a long way toward taking pressure off big installations, but US energy demand would still require a surge in large-scale projects.)

One way to reduce solar’s damage is wildlife-friendly fencing.

National electricity codes require fencing to protect people from electrical hazards and infrastructure from damage. Simply replacing the conventional chain-link version with fencing that has wider gaps will let creatures such as foxes scamper through. Raising the bottom of a fence off the ground, to offer a few inches of passage, accomplishes the same thing.

In Florida, a combination of 1.2m and 1.8m fencing allows panthers and deer to jump into many of Florida Power and Light’s solar facilities, said Mr Jack Eble, a company spokesperson. Wooden supports that shore up fences let medium-sized animals crawl over, and larger openings at the bottom give access to small animals.

“We have not experienced any issues with wildlife damaging solar panels or other solar-related infrastructure to date,” Mr Eble said.

But so far, wildlife-friendly fencing is not commonly used, according to Dr Josh Ennen, a senior scientist at the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute, a non-profit collaboration that seeks to find solutions to wildlife conflicts and is mostly funded by industry.

Developers are often unfamiliar with the options for wildlife-friendly fencing, and it may not be easily available.

Furthermore, many worry it will backfire if federally protected animals use the permeable fencing to wander onto the site. Suddenly, developers would have to worry about fines for driving over, say, a baby desert tortoise.

Regulations can get in the way, too. Around the country, solar facilities are subject to a disparate patchwork of local and state rules, some of which require specific kinds of fencing.

These challenges need to be solved quickly, biologists and wildlife advocates say.

“It’s not something we can easily retrofit,” Dr Kalies said. “Developers don’t want to tear down a fence once it’s up.”

A trade-off for the future

At Babbitt Ranches in Arizona, the solar farm’s fencing will be raised off the ground for smaller animals such as rabbits. Pronghorn, mule deer and elk will be kept out because of the developer’s concerns that they could damage equipment or hurt themselves. For those animals, they are planning the corridors.

Long known for Hereford cattle and quarter horses, Babbitt Ranches stretches over 283,280ha of private and leased public land. Transmission lines have drawn a crowd of clean-energy developers, and the first wind turbines are up.

Clenera, a solar developer, approached the ranch in 2018. For Babbitt president Bill Cordasco, the idea of a large solar project was appealing both financially and morally. It would bring in revenue for the family business while helping reduce climate risks for future generations. But he knew the pronghorn relied on that land. Mr Cordasco wanted to find a solution that would meet everyone’s needs, including the pronghorn.

“If you guys aren’t interested in working through this pronghorn deal, it ain’t going to happen,” he recalled telling Clenera during their first in-person meeting.

Clenera was interested.

State wildlife officials had data from earlier GPS collaring, so they knew how pronghorn and mule deer moved through the area. A renewable energy ordinance passed by Coconino County, where Flagstaff is, gave additional teeth to the importance of maintaining wildlife linkages in solar facilities.

A back-and-forth over the site design led to adding migration corridors and closing off some dead-end areas where animals could have got trapped or disoriented. Developers and wildlife officials discussed the pros and cons of 400m versus 800m corridors. (Would the smaller ones be wide enough for the animals to use? Would the larger be worth a significant increase in the overall footprint?) In the end, everyone agreed on the range of different corridors, creating a kind of natural experiment.

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