Sara Foss

Conservation groups aim to cushion birds from a solar power boom

The winter light is just beginning to fade. On this brisk February evening, a half-dozen birders are bundled up and scanning an open expanse of state land in upstate New York. They’re waiting for the marquee attraction: Short-eared Owls, elegant raptors that fly with distinctive, mothlike movements in search of prey. 

This gathering place for owl-seekers is part of the Washington County Grasslands, a 13,000-acre sweep of fields, meadows, and wetlands near the Vermont border. Fewer than 100 breeding pairs of Short-ears remain in New York, where they’re now classified as endangered—a decline in tandem with the steep loss of grasslands to development. To protect them and other wildlife that rely on this habitat, the state has acquired hundreds of acres here over the past decade. But the vast majority remains in private hands. 

Now a Quebec-based renewable energy company, Boralex, is eyeing 750 acres of the grasslands for a 100-megawatt solar facility expected to power approximately 28,000 households. Local conservationists say they support capturing more solar energy but fear the project will harm birds that nest in the fields or fly low over them to hunt, a group that also includes Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Upland Sandpiper, and Horned Lark. “From the standpoint of the birds, they couldn’t have picked a worse place,” says Katherine Roome, board secretary of the Grassland Bird Trust, a local conservation nonprofit. 

Washington County is not the only community where ambitious renewable energy goals are bumping into concerns about potential harm to birds that face shrinking habitats and a growing array of hazards. Conservation groups around the country are working to minimize conflicts over how to balance protections for wildlife with the urgent need to build solar infrastructure, though common ground is proving easier to find in some locations than in others.

“We’re going to need as many gigawatts as possible,” says Garry George, director of Audubon’s Clean Energy Initiative. “There will be land-use conflicts, but we need to help resolve them as fast as possible.” 

With action to limit climate change lagging behind what scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic impacts, there’s no time to lose. But George and others say they’re optimistic that, working together with developers, it’s possible to site and design solar projects to have the least impact on birds and other wildlife. “We think collaborating with the industry is a really important part of the work going forward,” George says.  

Ambitious Goals

Renewable industry players share this optimism. “We believe solar and birds can co-exist,” says Melissa Mansfield, a spokesperson for Boralex. The company is still planning its array in upstate New York and has not yet submitted a formal proposal. Boralex selected the site because it’s near an electric transmission line and there is local interest in collaborating with the company, Mansfield says. “We continue to work with local landowners, community members, and the birding community on ways to best develop this project, and are committed to minimizing our footprint, mitigating impacts, and increasing protected habitat for birds and other wildlife in this area.”

The Washington County site is part of an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area and a stop on the New York State Birding Trail. It’s also one of eight “grassland bird conservation centers” identified by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as areas where maintaining viable populations of rapidly declining species is possible. 

These conservation centers are a “very small proportion of the state’s land area,” says Michael Burger, executive director of Audubon Connecticut and New York. “We’re totally in favor of renewable development, but we want to see it responsibly sited, and this doesn’t make that cut. There’s plenty of room to develop solar. They don’t need to put it in one of the best grassland bird habitats in the state.”    

In New York, a climate law passed in 2019 requires that 70 percent of the state’s electricity be generated by renewables by 2030. The Biden administration has called for 100 percent carbon-free electricity nationwide by 2035. (The Biden goal includes nuclear plants, which produced 19 percent of U.S. power last year.) 

With renewable sources supplying 21 percent of U.S. electricity in 2022, including 14 percent from wind and solar, meeting these goals will require significant, rapid investment—and a lot of real estate. Utility-scale solar needs up to 10 acres per megawatt of capacity. By one estimate, meeting Biden’s goal would require a land area the size of South Dakota. 

Common Ground

To head off potential conflicts, environmental groups throughout the country have taken a proactive approach to solar. Many statewide organizations have created siting guidelines and mapping tools that direct renewable energy companies to low-conflict areas. 

“Renewable energy development is still development,” says Nick Lund, outreach and network manager for Maine Audubon. Developers want to keep costs low, and that can mean cutting down trees and building on ecologically sensitive sites, Lund says. “We want to make sure there are incentives to avoid that type of development.” To that end, Maine Audubon unveiled a GIS mapping tool in 2021 to help identify low-conflict areas well-suited for clean energy projects. 

Lund, an Audubon magazine contributor, is especially bullish on locating solar arrays on capped landfills to avoid disrupting open spaces where animals hunt and breed; Maine has capped more than 100 obsolete landfills in the past 20 years. 

A project that could serve as a model for other developers is a 4.7-megawatt solar farm constructed at one such site in the coastal city of South Portland. Completed in 2022, the array is expected to power 63 percent of South Portland’s municipal electric load. 

Environmentalists and renewable energy developers agree on the urgency of fighting climate change and, in certain circumstances, share a willingness to work together. In northeast Texas, concern over the wildlife impacts of a 471-megawatt solar facility led to collaboration between the Danish renewable energy company Ørsted and The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  

Environmentalists and renewable energy developers agree on the urgency of fighting climate change.

Ørsted began developing the facility, the Mockingbird Solar Center, in 2019.Environmentalists were concerned to learn that the project’s 4,900-acre footprint included the 1,700-acre Smiley-Woodfin Native Prairie Grassland, the largest remnant of native grassland in Texas and home to birds like Smith’s Longspur, Eastern Meadowlark, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. 

Because the land is privately owned, advocates weren’t sure anything could be done to save it. Then, this past January, Ørsted announced it would purchase almost 1,000 acres of the Smiley-Woodfin from a private landowner and donate it to The Nature Conservancy in Texas to manage and preserve. 

“Once our team talked to TNC, we learned about [the prairie’s] significance, the endangered nature of prairies nationally, how they’re really important for biodiversity and sequestering carbon,” says Charlotte Bellotte, a spokesperson for Ørsted based in Texas. “We started working together to come up with a solution that was agreeable to both sides.” 

Under the agreement, solar panels will be installed on sections of the Smiley-Woodfin not included in Ørsted’s land transfer. The Nature Conservancy will assist with efforts to minimize the impact to those areas, in part by planting native seeds harvested on-site. Bellotte noted that most of Mockingbird Solar Center will be built on land already disturbed for agriculture and that her company is protecting more than half of the Smiley-Woodfin’s rare ecosystem.  

While the project will still reduce the available prairie habitat, Suzanne Scott, state director of The Nature Conservancy in Texas, said the partnership will lay the groundwork for future collaborations on big projects. “It proved Ørsted really wants to explore how to do renewable energy in a way that is respectful of land and respectful of habitat,” she says. “Protecting the entire prairie would have been a wonderful outcome, but that was never really on the table.” 

Tough Spots

In other parts of the country, disputes between solar developers and environmental groups show no clear path to resolution. 

The Badger Mountain solar project, proposed for north-central Washington state, is an ongoing source of tension. The 200-megawatt facility, which is undergoing environmental review, would span 2,390 acres of range and farmland, most of it privately owned. Conservationists are fearful of its impact on the Greater Sage-Grouse, an endangered species in the state. 

“We have a species that’s on the brink, and there’s a lot of other suitable places where we could be looking for solar,” says Trina Bayard, director of bird conservation for Audubon Washington. “There are no other areas we can point to that provide the same value of intact habitat with functioning breeding grounds.” 

Washington has set a state goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. Using data from its Sagebrush Songbird Survey, Bayard’s group developed a Clean Energy Screening Tool and contributed to the state’s ongoing least-conflict solar siting process. But she doubts that the developer, Oregon-based Avangrid Renewables, will be able to come up with a solution that addresses her group’s concerns: “With this project, I don’t currently see a set of avoidance or mitigation measures that would allow sage-grouse to persist.”  

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), meanwhile, is looking to streamline solar permitting in large portions of the West. The agency is planning to revise its 2012 Western Solar Plan, which identified 17 “solar energy zones” in six states where it considered commercial-scale solar projects appropriate and eligible for faster permitting. The BLM is considering adding millions of acres, and new solar energy zones, in five additional states: Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. 

Since issuing the 2012 plan, the BLM has approved 41 projects totaling 9,700 megawatts of electricity on 75,000 acres. Some have been controversial. The 3,000-acre Yellow Pine Solar Project, under development in the Mojave Desert of southern Nevada, has raised concerns about the desert tortoise, a threatened species in that state. In 2021, a team of biologists relocated 139 tortoises to make way for solar panels. Within weeks, dozens were killed, possibly by badgers. Conservationists suggested that relocation stress made the tortoises more vulnerable, while drought prompted the badgers to look for new sources of food.  

At a February hearing about the proposed expansion of the Western Solar Plan, residents and advocacy groups urged the agency not to rush its update. “We have to make sure that the BLM is doing the best job they can do to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the impacts of these big solar projects,” says Audubon’s George. In a letter to the agency, Audubon opposed expanding the plan to include more states and recommended instead identifying new priority areas for solar development in the original six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. 

On the other side of the country, negotiations continue over the fate of the Washington County Grasslands. The Grassland Bird Trust has asked Boralex to conserve 500 acres of habitat to offset the project’s footprint, in addition to what Roome estimates would be 300 to 400 acres that Boralex would be required by state law to set aside through a land purchase or conservation agreements. The company has not yet responded to that request, Roome says, and her group is “considering our options with a goal of mitigating damage to this critical and diminishing habitat for vanishing grassland birds.”

Still, the mood was upbeat in early February when, beneath clear skies, Short-eared Owls were easy to spot. Six of them hunted voles in the field, one bird for each awe-struck observer. The Short-ear’s future in New York might be uncertain, but the birders stood watch until nightfall, appreciative and fulfilled. 

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