Does Solar Energy Development Impact Wildlife Conservation?
Solar energy is a critical tool in fighting rising greenhouse gas emissions. But how does it affect wildlife? After all, developing solar projects, like all other human activities, is bound to have some ecological impact.
For instance, studies from the South Western United States report that utility scale solar thermal power plants (not the same as solar PV) have caused mortality to local bird species by burning birds mid-flight (and the birds are unfortunately attracted to the bright but extremely hot solar towers).
This is a cause for concern, as there is already significant survival pressure on endangered species. However, not all impacts are as clearly understood. In fact, utility scale solar energy development, or USSED, may be potentially disruptive to local wildlife in several other ways.
This is because it can dramatically alter a previously untouched region by activities such as:
1) Soil excavation for site preparation (which could expose ground burrowing wildlife)
2) Construction of roads and living quarters for personnel (which, apart from introducing disturbing ground vibrations may also fragment habitat and affect population level genetics of local wildlife)
3) Introduction of foreign substances such as dust suppressants (a salt that is important for semi-arid or arid regions), antifreeze solutions, rust inhibitors, herbicides, heavy metals etc.
Additionally, because several species rely on aural communication (through short and long distance vocalisations over a wide range of frequencies), there are the potential impacts of introducing electromagnetic fields (during power transmission) and how it could affect their communicative abilities.
Impact of Solar On Wildlife – Need for Exhaustive Research
Unfortunately, based on current data sets, our modelling capabilities to study the ecological impacts of solar energy are quite limited. Also, with newer discoveries often being made about how species interact with their habitats, research that is focussed on examining a few linear cause and effect scenarios may be insufficient.
However, this is not to say that solar energy development should be halted in its tracks. We instead suggest that well thought out, long term studies be conducted to fully understand its overall ecological impact. Its benefits for us human beings certainly far exceed its current limitations of cost and technical integration. Properly designed mitigation measures and a better understanding of its relationship with endangered wild species may perhaps only enhance its credentials.