In Short – Building solar power infrastructure can be done with minimal harm to nature through careful planning and implementation. Strategies include siting solar farms on degraded lands, using eco-friendly materials, and incorporating wildlife-friendly designs. Balancing renewable energy expansion with environmental preservation is crucial for a sustainable future.
In Details – For pronghorn, those antelope-like creatures of the American West, this grassland north of Flagstaff is prime habitat. It gives the animals the food and conditions they need to survive fall and winter. But for a nation racing to adopt renewable energy, the land is prime for something else: solar panels. The sun shines strong, the terrain is flat and high-voltage transmission lines are already in place from a decommissioned coal plant. Energy collected here could speed to major metropolitan regions across the West, part of a colossal wave of clean power needed to stave off the worst effects of global warming.
Animals need humans to solve climate change. But they also need places to live. Loss of habitat is the top driver of a staggering global decline in biodiversity, the variety of life on earth. The boom in solar, set to be the fastest-growing energy source in the United States, is predicted to fence off millions of acres across the nation, blanketing them in rows of glassy squares. The good news for wildlife is that there are ways for solar developers to make installations less harmful and even beneficial for many species, like fences that let some animals pass, wildlife corridors, native plants that nurture pollinators, and more. But at this pivotal moment, as solar farms sprout across the country, those measures often go unused. Among the reasons: a patchwork of local and state regulations governing large-scale solar, not enough research on how animals interact with it, and an absence of federal guidelines on siting or design.
“We’re faced with two truths: We have a climate change crisis, but we also have a biodiversity crisis,” said Meaghan Gade, a program manager at the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. “We have to be mindful that there’s wildlife that are dependent on these habitats, and we have to be smart and thoughtful about how we’re doing this deployment so that we can hold both of those crises at the same time.” Eighty percent of states rely on voluntary approaches to minimize impacts to species and habitat, according to the association. As developers race ahead, the decisions they make today will reverberate for decades. On the grassland north of Flagstaff, a ranching family, solar developers and state wildlife biologists have come together to try out solutions on the fly. One sunny day last fall, a helicopter descended over a herd of pronghorn streaking across shrubby grasslands near the site of a planned solar farm.
Pronghorn are exceptional for their combination of speed and endurance. If there was a global mammal marathon, a pronghorn would probably win. Even though they look like antelopes, they’re more closely related to giraffes. While Arizona’s pronghorn population is stable, it’s a small fraction of the species’ historic numbers. A net shot from the helicopter, a buck fell and a wrangler jumped out. He tied the buck’s feet and a biologist blindfolded the heaving animal, hoping to calm him. Monitoring his temperature for signs of dangerous distress, they worked quickly to attach a tag to his ear and a GPS collar around his neck. The collar will track how he responds to the solar farm, which will be broken up into sections. Fifteen corridors ranging from a quarter-mile to more than a half-mile will offer habitat and passage for pronghorn, mule deer and elk. A moment later the pronghorn galloped away, an unknowing participant in an experiment in coexistence.