These Solar Farms Help—Not Harm—Birds and Bees

Conservationists and a U.K. company are working to restore and create wildlife habitat at photovoltaic power plants.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Mar 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

In the United Kingdom, threatened animals need all the habitat they can get—even if it’s under solar panels.

That’s the idea behind a joint project by conservation group Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and alternative-energy firm Anesco that aims to create and restore natural habitats at solar farm sites in the U.K.

By planting wildflower meadows and restoring natural grasslands in the “unused” margins between solar panel rows, the team hopes to attract insects, bees, and butterflies to the sites and provide food and nesting spots for birds.

It could be a boon to the region’s threatened bird species, which have experienced marked declines in the last 40 years, with tree sparrow populations dropping 93 percent, turtledoves declining 89 percent, and skylarks falling 51 percent.

The U.K. has lost nearly 44 million breeding birds since the late 1960s, according to the British Trust for Ornithology’s report The State of the UK’s Birds 2014. Populations for 60 percent of all native species have declined over the last 50 years, the RSPB said.

One reason is the continued loss of habitat from agriculture and urbanization.

Solar farms—while providing emission-free renewable power—aren’t known for protecting wildlife. Placing thousands of photovoltaic panels in rows along the ground will inevitably affect wildlife, said Stephanie Dashiell at The Nature Conservancy.

RELATED: U.K. Renewables Beat Coal Power for the First Time Ever

But the size of the project and the amount of land clearing and grading is a big factor.

“For smaller facilities [less than 50 megawatts], such as the facilities that Anesco develops, this type of mitigation is a promising way to minimize impacts to wildlife from the development of solar facilities,” said Dashiell, who is an energy associate project director for the conservancy in California. “However, the success of such measures greatly depends on the size of the facility, the ability to install panels without grading and fencing the land, and the ecosystem in which the facility is being sited.”

Dashiell has researched the impacts of large-scale photovoltaic facilities in California that have displaced thousands of desert tortoises in the Mojave Desert and kit foxes and giant kangaroo rats in the San Joaquin Valley. She said there haven’t been any good examples of habitat restoration in California sites, noting that solar companies often make up for wildlife impacts by restoring habitat elsewhere.

Anesco operates more than 500 megawatts’ worth of ground-mounted solar panels across the U.K., meaning thousands of acres of habitat could soon be restored. In the first phase of the project, RSPB experts are visiting solar farm sites to identify habitat restoration measures that would benefit animals deemed to be under the most serious threat.

“Over the next few years, we will be working with Anesco to further improve the habitats created at their solar farm sites across the U.K.,” Darren Moorcroft, RSPB’s head of species and habitats conservation, said in a statement. “It is an excellent opportunity to develop habitats for nature in need of our help, showcasing how a renewable-energy business and wildlife conservation can be delivered in unison.”

The recommendations by RSPB’s research team will also be implemented in Anesco’s biodiversity management plans for future solar farm sites.

“It’s promising to see this type of collaboration occur for smaller-scale PV projects in wetter ecosystems that can easily be restored,” Dashiell said, adding that she hopes monitoring is done to compare the wildlife differences between sites that are restored and those that are not.

In California, which has half of the United States’ entire solar capacity, the arid landscapes aren’t as easy to restore once they’ve been disturbed, and they would require water—a scarce resource in the region.

“Due to the difference in ecological conditions and the difference in the scale of the solar PV projects in the U.K. versus California, The Nature Conservancy continues to support an approach to solar-energy development that directs projects to locations that have the least impact to wildlife, thus avoiding the greatest impacts to wildlife,” Dashiell said.