As solar power increases in the United States, the Department of Energy is investing $14 million in research into how infrastructure affects wildlife and ecosystems.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has announced $14 million in funding for researchers to study the interactions of solar energy infrastructure with wildlife and ecosystems. Via Deployment of the Solar Energy Financing with Wildlife and Ecosystem Services (SolWEB) program., researchers will study the interactions of pronghorn, pollinators, birds and other species with solar energy installations in 26 states. This funding program also includes the Department of Energy’s first-ever investment in tools that can assess and help optimize the ecosystem services of solar installations.

“The Department of Energy is committed to ensuring that the deployment of renewable energy sources protects the environment,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm. “This first-ever investment by the Department of Energy in tools to better understand how solar energy infrastructure interacts with local wildlife and the environment will help increase adoption of ecosystem-based deployments of clean energy.”

Solar power is growing rapidly in the U.S., in part to meet President Biden’s net-zero carbon goal by 2050. While solar deployments have proven to benefit local communities and reduce carbon emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels, more data is needed on how large solar installations affect wildlife and the environment.

One study conducted in University of Nevada, Las Vegas, however, discovered that solar farms provide a better habitat than the vast desert. With turtle-sized holes at the bottom of the fence surrounding the solar structure, the turtles found more shade and food under the structure. In another study conducted by First Solar at its Topaz project in California, First Solar uses a special fence to keep out endangered foxes and their predators, coyotes. The study found that the vegetation at the site exhibits “a higher percentage of live cover, less bare ground and higher species diversity” than the surrounding lands. In the study at University of Arizonaresearchers found that crops improve the performance of solar panels, and solar panels improve crop yields in dry environments.

With the Department of Energy’s investment, it intends to expand understanding of solar energy and the environment, and consider ecosystem services, which may also include carbon sequestration and improved soil and water quality.

Projects aimed at interacting with wildlife ($8.8 million):

  • Cornell University (Ithaca, NY): $2 million to use new technology to quantify insect and pollinator biodiversity on solar installations.
  • Wildlife Institute of Renewable Energy (Washington, DC): $600,000 to develop and build a solar-wildlife data-sharing infrastructure that enables stakeholders to assess solar-wildlife interactions and improve wildlife management practices.
  • Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, New Mexico): $2 million to develop smart surveillance technology to monitor bird activity and study measures to prevent bird deaths at concentrated solar thermal power plants.
  • University of Arkansas (Fayetteville, AR): $1.3 million to assess biodiversity at large-scale solar installations to gain insight into solar-wildlife interactions and the benefits of native vegetation management practices in Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.
  • University of Massachusetts at Amherst (Amherst, MA): $1.2 million to conduct the first assessment of bird reproductive success at solar installations and apply new bioacoustic technologies to monitor local insect activity in the Northeast.
  • Wildlands Network (Santa Fe, New Mexico): $1.7 million to assess the response of pronghorn and other mammals to the installation of utility-scale solar energy systems in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Projects related to ecosystem services ($5.3 million):

  • Argonne National Laboratory (Lemont, IL): $2 million to develop a national soil data collection system on solar installations to assess soil health and soil ecosystem services.
  • Cornell University (Ithaca, NY): $1.5 million to develop a tool to estimate the costs and benefits of ecosystem services provided by large-scale solar installations for the solar industry and host communities in the Northeast.
  • Great Plains Institute (Minneapolis, MN): $1.8 million to build an equitable ecosystem services framework based on host community and tribal priorities in the Midwest.

These projects are part of the Department of Energy’s nearly $100 million renewable energy research portfolio, which invests in renewable energy technologies to minimize impacts on wildlife and maximize environmental benefits.

“If we hope to have a livable planet for our children and grandchildren, we need to get serious about renewable energy – including solar energy. As we tackle the climate crisis, we need to do more research to make sure we can preserve and protect our ecosystems and wildlife as we transition to renewable energy,” he said. US Senator Richard Durbin (Illinois). “I am encouraged by the DOE’s confidence in the world-class Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and I congratulate the Argonne scientists selected to lead this research.”

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