Impact of Solar Energy on Wildlife Conservation

Kaitlin LindrosJuly 23, 201930080

The impact of solar energy on wildlife conservation

With a new bill recently introduced to add more solar projects on public lands, it’s time to take a look at how solar energy impacts wildlife conservation efforts.

Are there negative effects of solar energy on the environment? If so, how can we minimize the impact of solar panels on wildlife? What are the pros and cons of solar panels for the environment and climate change?

Let’s take a look at what new public solar panel installations could mean for our furry (or not so furry) friends.

Construction of solar panel installation in California desert.

Top Concerns for New Solar Installation Projects

When a new public solar project is in the works, there are some major issues to address to make sure the site has a minimal impact on the surrounding wildlife and environs. Here are the top concerns.

Sizable area needed for projects

The first concern in utility-scale solar panel installations is the sheer size and scope of the projects. In order to make a difference for climate change, huge swaths of land are needed, with proposed projects potentially covering areas up to half the size of Manhattan. 

This space requirement raises concerns for the biologically fragile lands and habits that support sensitive or endangered species.

While clearing space to install solar panels, we need to be aware of the surrounding environment and how the project may affect wildlife. This includes surveying areas where solar panels are installed, taking into account which animals and plants maybe impacted the most, and looking at how it will affect the ecosystem at large, long-term.

Construction temporarily disrupts the environment

Once a solar array project gets the go-ahead, the biggest challenge to wildlife conservation is construction.

Construction projects can temporarily disturb the local environment with noise, grading, soil erosion and compaction from heavy equipment, and greenhouse gas emissions.

However, solar construction is not nearly as destructive as other types of construction, such as coal extraction, mining and oil drilling. In addition, the impact of the temporary disruption can be minimized with careful planning, with very few long-term consequences.

Responsible Development: Minimizing the Impact of Solar Projects on Wildlife

With awareness of the risks involved in starting a new solar project, there are steps that can be taken to ensure minimal impact to fragile environments throughout the life of the solar installation. Here are some of the ways we can responsibly implement solar. 

Siting and evaluation: bringing in expert surveyors

In order to determine the effects a new solar project may have on the ecosystem, it is very important to survey the land to evaluate potential impacts on wildlife and habitats.

To this end, solar companies work closely with licensed experts every step of the way, hiring professionals that include:

- Geological surveyors - ensure site boundaries are respected and that there is minimal disturbance to the ground.

- Biologists - often outnumbering construction workers at solar project sites, they help to identify key sensitive species and bring any concerns to the table before and during construction. They may also instate additional measures to protect wildlife, like creating a buffer zone, or relocating certain species.

- Archaeologists and Native American tribal representatives - may be called upon to preserve any historical artifacts in the area.

In addition to experts, there are many wildlife conservation groups and organizations in place to consult with to ensure the best outcome for the environment, including the World Wildlife Federation, which provides best practices for companies looking to install solar projects responsibly in the wild.

Fencing: a haven for wildlife

Fencing is often used to secure sites and land, but has the side effect of protecting wildlife too. With many solar sites surrounded by bustling areas that may bring other disturbances to wildlife, like agriculture, residential homes, grazing, and more, fences can create an unexpected safe haven for any animals in the area, preventing further conservation degradation. It also keeps out predators and aids plant regrowth, further bolstering the local ecosystem.

Brownfields: recycling developed land for solar installations

Rather than clearing wild land to make room for solar panels, why not use land that has already been developed? Developed and abandoned land, also called brownfields, can be an excellent alternative for a new, eco-friendly solar installations.

Installing solar on brownfields greatly reduces the impact on wildlife and allows for re-purposing of otherwise wasted land.

In addition, some states offer incentives to recycle brownfields into productive projects, so these can be a great opportunity to invest in solar energy profitably, without the ecological challenges of building on undeveloped land.

Avoiding grading

Solar construction projects can also minimize disturbance to the local area by building on existing terrain and slopes, eliminating the need for grading, which greatly distrubs local ground. Using existing topography also preserves natural drainage for water, placing less pressure on ecosystems overall.

Topaz Solar Farm: A Shining Example of How Solar and Wildlife Can Co-Exist and Thrive

One of the world’s largest photovoltaic solar farms, Topaz Solar Farm, a at 550-megawatt project completed in 2014 and located in the San Louis Obispo area of California, is a great case study for enivronmentally conscious solar panel installation.

A study of the site demonstrated how “responsibly developed solar power plants can provide shelter, protection, and stable use of land to support biodiversity.” The report serves as a guide for other solar projects, recommending that they apply the World Wildlife Federation’s best practices to achieve biodiversity.

The Topaz Solar Farm project demonstrates how biological monitoring throughout construction can lead to a successful outcome. Despite the temporary disturbance during construction, the local environment is thriving, with higher vegetation productivity and species diversity than control sites in the surrounding area.

After initial clearing during construction, vegetation returned, along with local fauna. Vegetation did just fine, growing well even in shaded areas, and getting plenty of water. Increased vegetation over time provided more food and protection for animals, controlled erosion, as well as provided dust control for solar panels. 

Overall, the project was a huge success, both for solar energy and for the local wildlife. 

Conclusion: Solar Installations Benefit the Planet and Wildlife Too

It is much better to install solar panels than not to, for the greater benefit of the environment.

Even if solar panel construction temporarily impacts wildlife, recovery time is short and the overall impact can be mitigated with careful evaulation. Even if a project does cause harm, climate change will have a much worse effect on our ecosystems long-term. But in most cases, solar installations have been shown to help improve wildlife conservation overall, so long as project managers are careful to build responsibly and monitor the surrounding environment as they go.

Solar installations are still one of the best ways we can slow the progress of greenhouse gases, carbon emissions, pollution, and more, and make a difference that will last.

Do you think public solar installations are the future of wildlife conservation? Leave a comment below!

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