Make Solar Energy Wildlife Friendly!
I’m a big believer in renewable energy and reducing pollution that leads to climate change, but I’m also a big believer in protecting wildlife habitat. So, what’s a person to think when the goals of renewable energy development and protecting vulnerable wildlife populations seem to conflict?
Take the desert southwest. It’s consistently sunny and close to major population centers. This would be the perfect place to develop solar energy. But the southwest is also home to sensitive habitat and several wildlife species that are already suffering population declines.
Solar energy development in the southwest could hurt these species (and others like pronghorn, Mojave ground squirrel, bighorn sheep, and elk) if it occurs in important wildlife habitat like migration corridors or overwintering grounds.
Can an industry as new and as important to our clean energy future as the solar energy industry afford such a controversial reputation?
Fortunately, President Obama and the Department of the Interior are taking steps to make sure that solar energy projects are built quickly and in a wildlife-friendly way- for example, the recently released draft Solar Energy Program (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement).
The solar energy program identifies 24 Solar Energy Zones on public land that could be developed. These areas, about 700,000 acres in total, were chosen because they possess all the right ingredients for generating and delivering solar power to the American public, but the Interior Department determined they have minimal potential for negative impacts to important wildlife habitat.
The Solar Energy Zones are a great first step forward. They’re a game-changer that will let us develop solar energy rapidly and responsibly.
However, NWF believes that there is still more that the Department of the Interior must do to make solar energy wildlife-friendly.
First, additional vital wildlife habitat (such as winter ranges for big game) that overlaps with solar energy zones should receive protection.
Secondly, the Department of the Interior might also let developers use an additional 22 million acres of public land (outside of the Solar Energy Zones).
NWF thinks that’s a bad idea because:
- The additional public lands have not been thoroughly examined for potential wildlife impacts.
- There’s already more space in the 24 Solar Energy Zones than is needed to reach current or anticipated state renewable energy generation requirements.
- Rather than open millions of acres to solar development, we should establish a process for identifying more solar energy zones if they’re needed in the future.
Solar Energy Zones are a great idea because the best way to get solar projects built quickly is to plan them responsibly from the start. By keeping areas outside of the 24 Solar Energy Zones off-limits to development and thoroughly examining the Solar Energy Zones for sensitive wildlife habitat, the Department of the Interior will set a strong precedent for responsible solar energy development in the United States.