Solar Farms and Wildlife – Success Stories Uncovered
Solar farms have been a target of contention for several years among critics concerned about their potentially harmful environmental and wildlife impacts. These concerns are often based on misinformation and the lack of broad public awareness of the successful work solar developers, environmental experts, and others have done to benefit wildlife, minimize water usage, and manage water runoff. Studies have shown that solar farms do a lot to improve and enhance the environment and wildlife.
Benefits to Wildlife
Wildlife can see a significant benefit from solar farms through scientific research, careful scaling, and effective modeling. An article by the Quintas Group stated that solar farms can help various endangered species thrive. The article also highlighted that the panels could reverse the decline in some species.
According to a study by researchers from the Universities of York and Lancaster (UK), the panels can serve as protection for small animals. One pro-solar panel organization, Woodlands, shared that the panels can shelter small mammals and birds and can act as protection from predators and a barrier between harsh weather and the animals.
Argonne National Laboratory, a research center in Illinois, has been studying wildlife at solar farms since 2018. They have set up microphones and motion-activated cameras to help collect data. At one of their collection sites, "the microphones…detected more than 47,000 bird calls from nearly two dozen different species including sandhill cranes, goldfinches, robins, finches, and an osprey."
Benefits to Pollinators
In an article by Vox, Heidi Hartmann, a program manager for land resources and energy policy at Argonne, shared that solar farms could go as far as getting certified as 'pollinator friendly.' This can be achieved through voluntary pollinator-friendly scorecards. The scorecards can be found in 15 states. They aim to measure the impact of solar farms on pollinators like bumblebees.
"They are voluntary, but they do help solar facilities to attain an objective certification that they're pollinator-friendly, that's been helpful to encourage some use of pollinator habitat at solar facilities," said Hartmann. Gill Perkins, the CEO of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, shared that solar farms will likely help boost the bumblebee population.
According to an article in South West Farmer, researchers at Lancaster University have found that "…solar farms can enhance biodiversity as they show an increase in the abundance of wildlife, especially pollinators like bees and butterflies that maintain biodiversity and ecosystem stability." The Lancaster study also found that pollinator habitats established within solar farms could increase the number of pollinators "by up to four times."
Benefits to Plants
Another concern among critics of solar farms is the impact on plant life in the area where they are installed. Recent studies have shown that solar panels can preserve native plants and ecosystems and potentially improve them. In addition, planned solar farms can rehabilitate land that has already been disturbed.
In the Vox article, Leroy Walston, a landscape ecologist with Argonne National Laboratory who studies the relationship between renewable energy and the environment, stated,
"Solar can be a net benefit in terms of restoring a native habitat and improving ecosystem services."
In a recent article, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy shared research and testing showing that there have even been improvements to the way stormwater runoff is handled regarding solar farms. Stormwater runoff results from rain and snowmelt that does not soak into the ground. It can harm the environment, causing issues like soil erosion and flooding. For this reason, many local governments require potential runoff on solar installations to be investigated and addressed before permits are approved. As a solution, many solar farms are implementing a solar-specific tool to assess and better understand the effect of stormwater runoff at solar plants. This tool is called the Photovoltaic Stormwater Management Research and Testing (PV-SMaRT) Runoff Calculator. It was designed by researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory for their PV-SMaRT project.
The calculator allows solar developers and regulators to accurately measure the amount of runoff from ground-mounted solar panels, ultimately helping to manage the runoff through planning. In addition, the PV-SMaRT project developed a plan for best practices for stormwater management at solar sites. Information about PV-SMaRT can be found on the Great Plains Institute website (linked below).
Success on the Carrisa (Carrizo) Plains
In California, two solar farms were developed, spanning almost 20,000 acres across the Carrisa (Carrizo) Plains. They are allowing the public to evaluate the impact of large solar farms on area wildlife and the environment. The Topaz and California Valley Solar Ranch solar projects went live in 2015, distributing power to a transmission line from San Luis Obispo to Bakersfield serving California homes.
The Carrisa Plains are home to several endangered species, specifically the giant kangaroo rat, the San Joaquin kit fox, pronghorn, and Tule elk. Historically, the area comprised dryland farming and ranching, with very little development.
The work for both solar farms started with biological surveys and mitigation. The chosen areas were in the foothills of the Temblor Range, a site with very little recorded activity of the endangered species. However, experts predicted that given the right environment, the populations of all the species would expand.
By 2018, the solar farms had fully accommodated the animals with water, wildlife corridors, and wildlife fencing. This allowed for moderate cattle and elk grazing, a key factor in the giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin Valley kit fox habitat. In 2019, the Sequoia River Land Trust added 3,332 acres of conservation land around the CVSR development and 5,886 acres of fee title lands.
In 2019, California State University, Stanislaus concluded a study titled Response of San Joaquin Kit Foxes to Topaz Solar Farms: Implications for Conservation of Kit Foxes. The study was conducted over three years and found that the survival of the Kit Fox was "similar between the solar and reference sites, and if anything, trended higher on the solar site." The study found that the solar site provided protection for the Kit Fox and other wildlife from large predators and raptors. In addition to tracking adults, scientists also identified natal dens where litters of pups were observed.
The study also noted the importance of preserving movement corridors through the facility, security fencing permeable to foxes, and other measures. The study's authors hypothesized that, "…the permeable fencing may rank among the more important as it not only maintained access and movements by foxes, but also may have functioned to create refuge for foxes from predation by larger predators."
Recently, the giant kangaroo rat species has expanded into nearly 8,454 acres of land used for solar farms. This is an area where they were not previously documented.
Solar farms are also proving to improve the land's natural growing conditions. This includes the restoration of shrubs and vegetation to the plains.
Local Comprehensive Plans Include Conservation
Some areas, like Morgan County in Colorado, use comprehensive plans to provide regulations and guidelines on new and existing solar farms. The Morgan County Comprehensive Plan (2008) implements policies on how solar farms and other renewable energy projects handle wildlife, soil erosion, and other significant environmental factors. The comprehensive plan states that its goal is "To preserve the manmade and natural environment in order to enhance the quality of life in Morgan County and to make environmental considerations part of the land use decision-making process."
The county does not wish to stop the development of solar farms; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The comprehensive plan for Morgan County directly states that it only requires new projects to consider the environment and work towards maintaining it while creating new jobs in the area.
Their economic plan direction goal states the following:
"Contribute to the Colorado New Energy Economy; work to attract and maintain renewable energy projects to capture this."
Morgan County Solar Ordinance
In July 2022, Morgan County adopted a Solar Ordinance. A public process was conducted to get input from the community on the ordinance. The ordinance language sets regulations and requirements that must be met to receive approval of permits for solar projects, including setbacks, appropriate zoning, and design parameters.
Comprehensive plans and solar ordinances, like the ones in Morgan County, can be excellent tools for areas that want to expand their green energy projects while maintaining the natural environment. When done correctly, they can be highly beneficial.
Stakeholders and Community Responsibility
More and more companies are successfully implementing pollinators and agrovoltaics with multiple benefits to soil, bees, and agriculture. Ultimately, it is up to the people involved in every aspect of a solar project to ensure its success. This includes project developers, county commissioners, community members, and other concerned stakeholders. The county commissioners are also responsible for following the comprehensive plan designed for their community, which, in the case of Morgan County, includes the development of renewable energy. There are easy steps to ensure a solar farm is a successful project for everyone. The success stories we have shared show that benefits are possible for the environment, wildlife, and communities.
Hidden Benefits of Solar for Wildlife article HERE
Sequoia Riverlands.org article about the Carrisa Plains HERE
Desert Report article about the Carissa Plains HERE
Lancaster UK information HERE
Energy.gov article about stormwater HERE
Vox article HERE
Bumblebee Conservation.org information HERE
Better Energy .org information about stormwater HERE
South West Farmer article HERE
MPR News.org article HERE