Sustainable energy access and conservation of wild species and biodiversity rank at the top of the international community of nations’ strategic agenda. An international group of scientists recently published a conceptual framework, the first of its kind, that could reconcile the trade-offs between solar power project development and ecosystems and biodiversity conservation.

In the peer-reviewed research paper, Techno-ecological synergies of solar energy for global sustainability, the research team identifies 20 overlooked advantages of distributed solar energy. These range widely and deeply, from greater solar panel energy and agricultural productivity and reduced use of polluting inputs, effluents and emissions to remediation and repurposing of contaminated land and water resources, carbon sequestration and water, native species and habitat conservation, including that for pollinators, research authors from the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and U.S. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) explain.

Framework for Techno-Ecological Synergies (TESs) of Solar Energy Development
Fig. 2: Framework for techno-ecological synergies (TESs) of solar energy development.
Click here to view the full-size chart.
Source: Dustin Mulvaney (@DustinMulvaney) / Twitter

Joined by researchers from 11 other organizations, the study authors set out “a framework for understanding more completely, and ultimately quantifying, the benefits of solar energy” that they’ve dubbed Wild Energy. “The first step in creating a wild-energy future is understanding the true value of solar,” said research project organizer and lead report author, Rebecca R. Hernandez, an assistant professor at UC Davis’ John Muir Institute of the Environment.

By valuing all the benefits of renewable energy, we can start to build an energy system that’s beneficial for people, wildlife and wild places.

Stemming climate change and the Earth’s Sixth Great Extinction

Our planet is in the midst of what the world’s leading natural scientists have deemed The Sixth Great Extinction, Greer RyanSolar Magazine Interviewee Avatar, study co-author and CBD renewable energy and research specialist, highlighted in an interview. Unlike the previous five that have occurred throughout the 3.5 billion years or so history of life on the Earth, humans, as opposed to natural events and processes, such as volcanic eruptions, meteor strikes, wildfires and flooding, are the main drivers of this one.

“The U.N. recently released a report (its latest Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) explaining that we’re in the worst extinction event in human history, with 1 million species on the verge of extinction due to human activities,” Ryan told Solar Magazine.

This loss of species is a tragedy in itself. The U.N. report also found that this level of biodiversity loss has, and will continue to have, grave economic, sociological and environmental impacts to human communities such as threats to food security and water scarcity.

Our dependence on fossil-fuel energy is driving climate change, ecosystems and natural resources degradation and loss the world over, Ryan elaborated. “Reliance on fossil fuels is the primary driver of the climate crisis, which drives threats like global temperature rise, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, coastal flooding, rapid Arctic warming and polar ice loss, mass biodiversity loss, threats to freshwater resources, declines in food security, and ocean acidification,” she said.

Ryan cited the loss of life and livelihoods due to more frequent and intense hurricanes, wildfires and floods, such as the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Barry in the U.S. state of Louisiana just recently, as “acute and urgent” examples of how the costs of and threats associated with our dependence on fossil-fuel energy are rising.

The Costs of and Threats Associated with Dependence on Fossil-Fuel Energy Are RisingIn addition to the climate change impacts of fossil fuels, Ryan pointed out that: “[T]he extraction and generation of fossil fuels has taken a horrible toll on our communities and ecosystems. From mountaintop removal of coal, to fracked gas, fossil fuel sources create air and water pollution that harm local communities. They often cause higher rates of cancer, asthma, and water shortages.” She singled out urban oil drilling in south Los Angeles that is causing an increase in asthma rates among predominantly Latino communities, contamination of water resources in North Carolina due to coal-ash waste and the disposal of wastewater from shale oil and gas in Oklahoma, which scientists have linked to the increased occurrence of more intense earthquakes.

“Both here in the United States and on a global scale, those who are and will continue to suffer the most due to our dependence on fossil fuels tend to be those who are least responsible for it,” Ryan said.

Solar power project development that yields net socioeconomic, biodiversity and ecosystems benefits

Accelerating the pace of distributed solar energy project development could go a long way towards reconciling the trade-offs and conflicts of interest between sustainable energy and socioeconomic needs and goals and conservation of biodiversity, species and ecosystems. Any solar project development framework should tightly integrate ecological and wildlife conservation principles, methods and analytical tools , the researchers assert, a concept that, after many years of advocacy by physical and social scientists, is only just starting to gain some genuine traction among industry players, policymakers and government leaders.

The World’s Largest Floating PV Testbed Managed by SERIS, Located in Tengeh Reservoir, Singapore
The world’s largest floating PV testbed managed by SERIS, located in Tengeh Reservoir, Singapore.
Image: Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS)

In their research paper, the authors describe “a model for engineering solar energy systems that maximizes both technological and ecological benefits.” Furthermore they:

  • Create a framework for characterizing 20 benefits of installations on different spaces, including rooftop solar, solar on contaminated land, solar over functional bodies of water like reservoirs, water treatment areas and irrigation canals, and solar co-located with agriculture and grazing;
  • Make the case for understanding that as renewable energy development is ramped up to address the climate crisis, it shouldn’t create unnecessary negative impacts, especially when technology and resources are available to maximize positive effects;
  • Suggest how this framework might be useful in policy and regulatory decision-making in order to ensure a sustainable energy transition.

The researchers highlight the advantages of applying the techno-ecological solar power development framework in different environments and situations, including so-called “agrivoltaic” and “range-voltaic” applications, “floatovoltaics” at the water-energy nexus, rural electrification and expanding sustainable energy access, and applications in the built environment.

Applying the framework, the researchers found nine potential, advantageous outcomes associated with solar-powered irrigation systems in both modern, high-yielding agricultural systems and among developing-world smallholder farms that lack grid access, for example. “These systems may offset increasing costs associated with greater electricity use on farms, supporting food system resilience and enabling greater water-use efficiency and water quality,” they explain, offering an example in Spain, where energy consumption per unit area increased 657% from 1950 to 2007 due to changes in farm-based water-management activities. “This is largely associated with technological advances in pumping and moving water that have dramatically increased water-use efficiency, but the Jevons Paradox can exist,” they caution.

Offering another example, the researchers highlight the USDA Farm Ranch and Irrigation Survey of 2013 that spanned 1,592 U.S. farms with over USD1,000 in products produced or sold and used solar-powered pumps spanning to irrigate some 28,104 acres, as well as a pilot project in northern Benin, that revealed “significant economic, nutritional, human capital and investment benefits of community-scale solar-powered irrigation projects.”

Sheep Graze Under the 35th Street Solar Array at Oregon State University
Photo: Mark Floyd, Oregon State University

Conceptual frameworks that aim to achieve global sustainable energy and biodiversity goals are also making headway in other industrially developed countries, the authors point out. “There is both political will and an economic case for this techno-ecological synergy (TES): The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan updated the Agricultural Land Act in April 2013 allowing the installation of PV systems on crop-pastureland, and guidance within the U.K. purports PV installations are grazed by sheep and poultry…”

“Stocking densities of sheep similar to conventional grasslands may be attainable and poultry stocking densities up to 80% of that for conventional free-range systems, are suggested, thus representing substantial land sparing,” they highlight. In the U.S., Minnesota and other U.S. states are enacting regulations that require solar power project developers to incorporate pollinator-friendly and ecologically advantageous methods and means when designing and building out projects.

Distributed solar energy: “More benefits than most people imagine”

More broadly, scientists working at the CBD are working to spur the transition to sustainable, solar power project development that not only minimizes negative impacts to human and environmental health and quality of life, but can actually yield net benefits.

We are interested not only in rapidly transition off fossil fuels and on to clean energy, but doing so in a way that’s best for communities and wildlife by maximizing distributed solar and storage.

—Ryan said.

Ryan’s interest and participation in development of the techno-ecological solar energy project framework project was two-fold. “I wanted to better understand how many benefits distributed solar can provide, especially in unconventional spaces, to help people think outside of the box when deciding where and how to build new solar. I also wanted to help create a tool that’s actually useful and proactive for solar advocates to use to push back against anti-solar utility and fossil fuel groups,” she explained.

Electric utilities and fossil fuel interests continue to oppose measures to promote solar energy growth even as they restructure and bid to own it and adapt to the dramatically changing power and energy industry and market environments, Ryan added. “A lot of these fights are happening behind the scenes, in resource planning, net metering, and value of solar proceedings. And they’re often happening on the utilities’ terms, with climate, environmental, social, and grid benefits rarely, if ever, considered.”

“Solar energy has way more benefits than most people imagine,” Ryan said. “We’re hoping utilities, regulators and legislators will now have a better sense of the importance of solar energy. That will lead to the expansion of rooftop solar, more community solar development and lower prices for everyone.”

“Wild Energy”: Balancing Nature and Solar Energy Development“Tackling the climate and extinction crises is going to take action at all levels and will require a holistic, just, and rapid energy transition. We’ll need a mix of cutting back on energy use and waste—especially in countries like the U.S., where energy consumption levels eclipse those of most other countries—and clean, sustainable energy technologies and smart policies to get there,” Ryan concluded.

There is no one silver bullet, and technology alone will not be enough. But this transition presents an opportunity to create a better energy system, where technology is applied not simply to maximize profit, but to maximize positive ecological and social outcomes.

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