Solar Array, © USArmy Environmental Command

Renewable Energy and Wildlife Conservation: New Challenges, New Solutions

Eliza Cava, Conservation Associate, Renewable Energy & Wildlife

How do we help advance solar and wind energy projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also protecting sensitive wildlife and their habitat?

pronghorn antelope

As wind development grows in places like Oregon and Idaho, coordinated landscape-scale planning for both renewable energy and conservation can help us find the best places to build wind farms while protecting and improving habitat for pronghorn and other wildlife. (©Larry Andreasen)

We know that traditional energy sources like oil, gas and coal pose great risks to wildlife, be it from oil spills, habitat destruction or the release of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. But what about renewable energy, like solar and wind?

These are an essential part of reducing the pollution that comes from our energy use. But their size and how they function can have a huge impact on wildlife and their habitat. So, how can we develop these renewable energy resources without sacrificing wildlife?

The answer, as the saying goes, is “location, location, location.”

Traditionally, energy developers and land managers have picked project sites by focusing on the available energy resource; thinking about how those projects might affect natural resources and wildlife was an afterthought. But this way of doing business inevitably leads to delays, uncertainty, and conflict when developers discover after the fact that sensitive, threatened, or endangered wildlife may be on the site.

That’s where we come in.

desert tortoise

Planning ahead for solar energy development in the desert Southwest can allow us to develop solar projects in the right places while protecting essential habitat for the Desert tortoise. (©Beth Jackson/FWS)

Defenders and our partners are working to change this paradigm in ways that reduce the potential for conflicts with wildlife while still permitting responsible renewable energy development to go ahead in the right places.

It starts with a landscape-scale analysis of energy potential and wildlife conservation priorities using many of the mapping tools and technologies currently available from state and federal wildlife agencies and non-profit conservation organizations. This allows energy developers to identify areas of potential energy-wildlife conflict and avoid them.

Next, developers can attempt to minimize wildlife impacts by adjusting the project’s scope or the way in which the project will be operated (e.g., installing radar to detect when birds are migrating through an area and shutting down wind turbines to reduce the likelihood of collisions).

Finally, when facing unavoidable impacts, developers can offset them by purchasing or restoring habitat or contributing funds to a “mitigation bank” from which proceeds can be used to protect other lands that will benefit the wildlife and habitats impacted by the project. The idea is to ensure that lands and habitat acquired or restored will make up for the lands lost or disturbed by the energy project.

Combined, these mechanisms for dealing with the potential risks posed by a project are referred to as the “mitigation framework.” And, they are the means by which we can produce renewable energy without sacrificing sensitive lands and wildlife in return.

Defenders is developing and promoting this approach on many fronts. Last June, Defenders and our partners hosted a workshop on mitigation policy in Washington, DC. Leaders from the conservation community, energy industries, and state and federal agencies gathered to discuss the latest techniques and tools in mitigation and how to continue to improve their use. We followed that up this spring with another workshop at the annual North American Wildlife and Natural Resources conference in Arlington, VA, where Defenders and others led a series of panels and presentations on landscape-level planning and mitigation.

solar energy dry lake mojave

Panoramic view of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in southern Nevada’s Mojave Desert. (©BLM)

In between these two conferences, we have been working on using the mitigation framework to improve the planning and placement of individual solar and wind projects, and we participated in a series of groundbreaking workshops led by the Bureau of Land Management to define the first Region-wide Mitigation Plan for one of the solar energy zones identified by the Department of the Interior in their western solar plan. We helped Argonne National Laboratory develop a new data mapping tool for understanding and reducing wildlife conflict in transmission line planning, worked with the Arizona BLM on its first-of-a-kind Restoration Design Energy Program to identify and avoid places of high conflict across the landscape, and we continue to participate in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan process in California.

As our country further embraces renewable energy, the question of how it affects wildlife and habitat will continue to be key, and Defenders is committed to promoting a landscape-scale approach to planning for energy and wildlife conservation in key areas. Remember: “location, location, location…” By using existing science and mapping technologies, we can work with the solar and wind energy industries to help them build better projects – better for wildlife and better for them because reducing conflicts with wildlife increases the likelihood that projects get built in less time and at lower cost. That, in turn, means that more clean energy is available to meet our nation’s energy needs and less dirty energy is needed. And that will benefit us all, particularly sensitive wildlife already threatened by a warming planet and increasing habitat loss.

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