There’s no denying that, in order to reach a more environmentally friendly future, we need more renewable energy. One of the many ways to achieve that, as we know, is solar panels.
Solar panels have their own issues like concerns about the mining for materials and the future waste problem. But because solar energy is often simpler, more efficient and versatile compared to wind or hydropower, it remains to be the most popular and widely used form of renewable energy.
But, researchers at the University of Bristol, UK found that there are some environmental drawbacks. The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggests that solar farms may be disrupting ecological processes and may even be dangerous for animals in the area.
Bats activity around solar farms
In the study, the scientists monitored several bat species in the UK and found that their activity was greatly reduced near these solar farms.
Co-author of the study Gareth Jones stated that this situation can be potentially concerning in areas where bats could be foraging.
“We already know that bats can collide with vertical flat surfaces, and can mistake flat surfaces for water, and attempt to drink from them. Very little is known on the impacts of solar farms on bats, particularly in the U.K.,” Jones said.
The researchers observed the common pipistrelle, noctule, myotis, serotine, soprano pipistrelle and long-eared bat species. They observed then in different fields using equipment that recorded the bats’ echolocation calls throughout 19 matched sets of fields, one with solar panels and a similar one without solar panels
Then, the researchers documented the bats’ calls and catalogued the species and number of individual passes by the bats. They discovered that there were significantly less bat activity in the fields with solar panels than in the empty control fields.
Per the scientists, now that they’ve found how dangerous the solar farms can potentially be, we still need more research for the bats so that we can protect them better. They call for investigation into specific bat behaviors like collision with panels and also habitat loss.
Knowing the bad to do the good
According to lead author Lizy Tinsley, it’s necessary to be well aware of the negative effects of renewable energy soon that in the future, we can develop win-win solutions for sustainable energy production and preservation of wildlife.
Tinsley said that it would be important to identify mitigation strategies that can benefit bats at solar farms. Some ways to do that include planting insect-friendly plants, providing corridors to insect-rich habitats, or providing suitable alternative foraging habitats such as trees.
“Mitigation strategies can potentially mean that renewable energy can be provided while simultaneously having no detriment to wildlife. Such mitigation will be critical in reaping the undoubted benefits for climate change that can be provided by renewable energy,” Tinsley said.
For the future, the researchers how that their study can shape policy and legislation going forward for balance between renewable power sources and local biodiversity. Tinsley, in particular, called for environmental impact assessments for the existing or future solar farms.
“This has already been done with wind farms — where mortality of bats has been reduced by changing the wind speeds at which turbines become operational and by using acoustic deterrents, at minimal cost,” Tinsley said.
Happening to birds as well
Another report found that Kansas is having a similar experience; only this time, the drawbacks happen to whooping cranes. These birds are endangered, with only 836 individuals in the world and of that number, 134 live in captivity.
Now, in Barton County Kansas, there are two wetlands that are of international importance: Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. Both are the staging sites used by whooping cranes and some other protected species as they migrate to the country each season.
Because of their rarity and beauty, people are willing to travel considerable distances to see them.
However, that may change, as an energy company plans to develop a solar farm on a large swath of land bordering Cheyenne Bottoms.
Currently, county officials have placed a temporary suspension on all permits for commercial solar development within the unincorporated areas of Barton County. This gives time for the planning commission to consider zoning regulations.
According to environmental manager and zoning administrator Judy Goreham, the moratorium will last until Dec. 31 this year. There are options to either extend or eliminate the deadline, which all depend on the amount of time the commission needs.
Some argue that despite the need for more solar power, the placement of such large-scale infrastructure must take painstaking consideration and research. Locating solar farms anywhere near a wetland, particularly a wetland of critical habitat, is an unreasonable thing to do.
In addition, there haven’t been enough studies to fully understand the impact of solar farms on birds, as some have argued. If there were, the finding would further show that such infrastructure doesn’t augur well for birds, like the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory’s 2014 study.
Titled “Avian Mortality at Solar Energy Facilities in Southern California: A Preliminary Analysis,” the study summarizes data on bird mortality from three types of solar energy facilities. One of which is a photovoltaic facility, the type planned for Barton County.
The study suggests that there were a wide variety of bird species which were killed at the solar facilities. Furthermore, there was increased water bird mortality at the photovoltaic facility, where “open water sources were present,” which got worse due to impact trauma and predation.
“Predation was documented mostly at the photovoltaic site, and in many cases appeared to be associated with stranding or nonfatal impact trauma with the panels, leaving birds vulnerable to resident predators,” the study clarified.
Basically, birds who frequently go to the wetlands are attracted to water features in the region, and they’re already used to the presence of an accessible aquatic environment.
Then, due to the horizontal polarized light source, the birds mistake solar panels as a body of water. Of the 15 birds that died of predation at the solar farm, 14 were species that made their homes on water and were found near the ponds located near the infrastructure.
Considering the location
People who are against the idea of building renewable energy infrastructure near areas where wildlife—especially the protected or endangered ones—roam around freely are not at all against the need for cleaner energy. It’s just that they put the emphasis on the location.
As another example, we know by now that wind turbines—although good for reducing fossil fuels—have killed countless of birds and bats.
At the High Prairie Renewable Energy Center in Kirksville, Missouri, there was a wind farm near a habitat for federally protected species. It was only after the turbines killing multiple protected species that the facility decreased its operation.
But is it all bad news?
Looking at the discoveries above, building renewable energy infrastructure gets more complex as we need to be mindful about wildlife. However, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
According to Eric Nordberg, senior lecturer at University of New England, solar farms can also double as a haven for wildlife—provided that the farm is built on agricultural land or other areas which are not close to existing wildlife habitat.
Making it a haven involves surveys and trapping to identify what plants and animals occupy solar farms, how long they take to recolonize, and how to promote more biodiversity.
Nordberg stated that solar infrastructure could create a mosaic of sun and shade patches, which provide many “micro-habitats” for plants and animals. The senior lecturer also added that research from Europe has shown large solar farms can enhance the diversity and abundance of plants, grasses, butterflies, bees and birds.
However, despite the stated benefits, Nordberg acknowledges that there’s much work to be done to fully grasp these opportunities. “
More work is needed to understand how solar farms can benefit wildlife. Research is also lacking on how to locate, configure and manage solar farms to best enhance biodiversity,” Nordberg said.
For what it’s worth, my hope is that scientists, environmentalists, ecologists, and communities will find a way to reduce the mortality rate caused by renewable energy infrastructure. We’ve indirectly reduced a lot of their numbers, let’s not make it worse.
But what do you think about all this?