To both advance solar energy and conservation goals over fossil-fuel use, a study led by University of California, Davis, ecologists helps clarify the benefits, trade-offs and interactions between renewable energy systems and the environment.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, identified five critical concepts as a framework to underpin policy, siting, restoration and management of renewable energy development, using ground-mounted, utility-scale solar energy as a model. The concepts promote conservation alongside energy production.

“There are great opportunities for humans, landscapes and species in guiding this process of development with ecological foresight,” said lead author Kara Moore O’Leary, an assistant project scientist at UC Davis when the study was conducted and currently a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “If we plan well, we will maintain some of the diversity in habitats and species that we appreciate and benefit from. If we do not, future generations will look back with great regret on what we have lost.”

Five critical concepts

  1. Utility-scale solar energy systems exist within a land-energy-ecology nexus. This represents the interactions among the energy facilities, the physical landscape, and the wildlife and habitats within that energy system and environment. 
  2. There are winner and loser species. The habitat disturbance, fencing, panels and mirrors, and equipment that can come with utility-scale solar energy systems can disturb wildlife in different ways. While some organisms that thrive in disturbed areas, like ravens and coyotes and invasive plants, can benefit from such changes, other species do not.
  3. Cumulative and large-scale environmental impacts require careful consideration and planning.
  4. These facilities share common features, including clean energy benefits, land and infrastructure requirements, and certain ecological impacts. These commonalities provide the basis for management policies. Yet each installation also has impacts specific to the site that will require customized resource management.
  5. The long-term ecological consequences of utility-scale solar energy facilities are unknown, given shifting energy demands and new technologies. Environmentally sound development plans for such systems must include long-term goals either for retrofitting solar infrastructure as it ages or for deconstruction, recycling, and site repurposing or restoration.

“There are still many people who think that deserts and semi-arid environments, where most ground-mounted solar energy systems are sited in California, are mostly barren of ecosystems services that are important to humans,” said co-author Rebecca R. Hernandez, an assistant professor in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis. “However, aridlands are incredibly rich in natural and cultural resources. Avoiding worst-case scenarios for solar energy development will require a collaborative education among the entire solar energy development knowledge system.”

The study was supported with funding from the California Energy Commission and National Science Foundation.