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Wildlife-Friendly Renewable Energy

Wildlife-Friendly Renewable Energy

Wind

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.


PV-Solar-Facility_NREL

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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