Wildlife-Friendly Renewable Energy

Photo: Gidzy / Flickr


Guest post by Julie Falkner, Senior Director of Renewable Energy at Defenders of Wildlife

Defenders of Wildlife has been working to protect the wildlife and habitats of North America since 1947. Over the past several years, we, like many conservation organizations, have grown more and more concerned about the impacts of climate change on wildlife—the United Nations has determined that it will become one of the biggest threats to biodiversity in the coming decades and centuries. One way that Defenders is responding is in our work facilitating the growth of wildlife-friendly renewable energy that will help us reduce the long-term threat of climate change while conserving habitats today.

While we recognize the need for cleaner sources of energy to reduce our reliance on dirty fossil fuels, even renewable energy alternatives can have impacts on wildlife and habitat. The size and operation of wind and solar farms can impact wildlife directly, through collisions with turbines and solar power towers, for example, as well as indirectly, by causing habitat loss and fragmentation in sensitive landscapes. So, how can we develop these renewable energy resources without sacrificing wildlife? 

The answer is, as the saying goes, “location, location, location.”

Traditionally, energy developers and land managers have chosen project sites by focusing on the available energy resource; thinking about how those projects might affect natural resources and wildlife was an afterthought. But this way of doing business inevitably leads to delays, uncertainty and conflict when developers discover after the fact that sensitive, threatened or endangered wildlife may be on the site.

That’s where we come in. Defenders and our partners are working to change this paradigm to an approach that looks across the landscape and assesses what we know about what we need to protect, where significant opportunities to restore lost habitat values are and which places have the least value to wildlife and the greatest potential for renewable energy development. We have partnered with developers to identify and promote low-conflict solar project sites (for example on degraded agricultural lands) and to reduce the water use of projects proposed in the desert, and have opposed projects that threaten high-quality habitat for imperiled species like desert tortoise, burrowing owls and golden eagles.

Solar projects in Imperial County, Calif. show that it is possible to develop viable, cost-effective projects without sacrificing our precious desert wildlands (photo: Defenders of Wildlife)

We have learned valuable lessons through our engagement with individual projects, and we are applying that knowledge to advocate for better national policies for planning and siting renewable energy. We have worked with the Bureau of Land Management on a landscape-scale solar program spanning public lands across six southwestern states, and with the Fish and Wildlife Service on developing guidelines for wind developers to reduce conflicts with wildlife. Since we have begun working to improve siting of renewable energy on all our nation’s lands, the Obama administration has authorized more than 13,300 MW of renewable energy—enough to power more than 4.6 million homes—on more than 300,000 acres of public lands. The recent stunning growth of the solar and wind industries reinforces the need to strengthen this new paradigm of landscape-scale planning for conservation and renewable energy as we enter a new era of renewable power.

And so, it seems, our work has really just begun. The Obama administration has announced a bold new plan to combat climate change that points the way towards a future of conservation and stewardship of our planet for future generations. In addition to spurring clean energy investment, modernizing the electric grid and regulating carbon pollution from power plants, Obama directed the Interior Department to “green light” enough renewable energy capacity on public lands to reach a total of 20,000 megawatts by 2020—enough to power more than 6 million homes. Following Obama’s speech, current Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said “[if] the president gives me a goal, I’m going to meet it.”

However, when you set a goal in megawatts, you get the results in megawatts. Some of the first 13,300 megawatts generated by renewables were approved without paying enough attention to conserving species and their habitats. If this same model is advanced to meet new goals, it could actively harm vulnerable populations of desert tortoise, golden eagles, kit fox, pronghorn and other sensitive species. We can and must do better than this on our public inheritance—we have an obligation to leave our children and grandchildren not just a healthy atmosphere, but thriving populations of wildlife on intact habitats as well. We believe the President’s goal can be achieved, but there is a right way for that to happen.

We need clean energy to combat climate change, but we need to develop it in a responsible manner. We need more than megawatts. We’re thinking outside of the box to find creative and low-impact ways to build renewable energy, whether on or off public lands. On public lands, we continue to encourage the Department of the Interior to build upon their work with the BLM’s  Western Solar Program and other similar initiatives to guide renewable energy development to the best places on the landscape, so that our Nation’s rich wildlife heritage is protected for future generations.


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