By: Mikalah Singer, Law & Policy Fellow
Despite its potential to impact local ecosystems, renewable energy is the best energy technology to protect wildlife from the effects of climate change now and in the future. Efforts to protect wildlife should focus on a swift transition to renewable energy, but the shift should not come at the expense of vulnerable species and ecosystems. When siting renewable energy facilities like wind or solar farms, developers should therefore select locations that avoid negative impacts to local ecosystems.
Renewable energy technologies are considered clean sources of energy because they have the ability to decrease the environmental impacts of energy production, produce minimal secondary waste, and are sustainable for current and future social and economic needs. There are a number of renewable energy sources that mitigate human impacts on the climate. The most common renewable energy sources are hydropower, solar energy, and wind energy. Solar energy is produced through photovoltaic cells and by concentrating solar power to produce thermal energy. Wind energy is produced by turbines that harness kinetic energy created by moving air. These renewable sources are available in near-limitless quantities when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.
Renewable energy facilities have smaller carbon footprints than fossil fuel resources, making them better for wildlife. Carbon-free energy mitigates the impact of humans on climate change by minimizing greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including species loss and extinction, are projected to be lower when the global temperature is lower.
Responsibly developed renewable energy is paramount in the fight against climate change to protect wildlife. While energy development of any type can be damaging to ecosystems, the benefits of renewable energy can outweigh the costs, particularly when wildlife is concerned. Some renewable energy opponents tend to point out the technologies’ negative impacts on wildlife. For example, wind energy is targeted for its impact on wildlife due to its land impacts and physical effects on birds and bats. Critics of solar energy development have concerns about the impact large arrays may have on the vulnerable desert ecosystems in which they are often sited. However, renewable energy developers can minimize these impacts by constructing wildlife-friendly facilities.
Future energy production must be renewable, but also wildlife-friendly. Wildlife-friendly energy includes only renewable energy facilities that have minimal impact on wildlife and the environment. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels constructed on current structures are a main wildlife-friendly energy source. Other main sources are well-sited and well-monitored PV and wind installations on previously degraded environments.
Organizations such as Defenders of Wildlife promote the development of wildlife-friendly renewable energy to mitigate the long-term threat posed by climate change while protecting vulnerable habitats and wildlife. These organizations have determined that location is the key component to preventing negative impacts to wildlife. When renewable energy development begins, the location should be determined by not only the available energy resource but also the impacts on natural resources and wildlife.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, when renewable energy projects are planned with wildlife and sustainability in mind, they have a much smaller land use footprint than traditional energy sources. When PV installations are built on existing structures or previously degraded land, they can have minimal wildlife-related land use impacts because these sites typically provide little habitat for vulnerable species. Furthermore, even though wind energy projects can require a large amount of land use, the space surrounding the turbines can be used for multiple other purposes, including agriculture. The actual land use of wind farms can be minimal due to the extra land between the turbines.
There are notable factors for consideration when responsibly siting renewable energy installations. These factors include identifying and avoiding important wildlife areas generally and within a project footprint, placing renewable energy facilities close to population centers so fewer transmission infrastructure is needed, and developing renewable energy facilities on previously disturbed ground to protect habitat. These strategies will help produce sustainable, wildlife-friendly, renewable energy projects that will be beneficial for everyone in the fight against climate change.