Solar facility, © NREL

Re-Powering America’s Lands

Eliza Cava, Renewable Energy & Wildlife Conservation Associate

A basic tenet of Defenders’ work on renewable energy is that we try to balance the long-term benefits of renewable energy with its immediate impacts on wildlife, like habitat loss from large-scale solar development and the potential for bird and bat strikes from poorly-placed wind turbines. That’s why our work is all about minimizing the impacts of energy use as we try to work out the best deal possible for wildlife while promoting the renewable energy we need as a society.

And that’s why I get so excited when we find win-win opportunities to develop renewable energy without harming wildlife—by developing solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass facilities on landfills, hazardous waste sites, abandoned mine fields, and other disturbed and degraded lands that may not be valuable as wildlife habitat. We incorporate this concept into much of our renewable energy work, including  the Restoration Design Energy Project in Arizona, which is searching for disturbed public and private lands that can be used for wind and solar development. We use a similar approach with our advocacy for projects on degraded farm fields, like 8minutenergy’s Mt. Signal and Calexico I & II solar power plants in California’s Imperial Valley.

The EPA, with its REPowering America’s Lands program, is working steadily to help communities across the country join us in using this concept to guide renewable energy development to those places best suited for it.

So far, the program has inventoried and mapped thousands of potentially contaminated land and mine sites across the country  — sites that do not make for good wildlife habitat — and estimated their renewable energy potential. They have also produced best practice reports and handbooks on siting renewable energy projects on these types of lands; published solar and wind decision trees [PDFs] to help planning organizations determine the best potential locations for renewable energy on degraded lands in their communities; and helped property owners and communities understand liability concerns and redevelopment options for these sites. They have analyzed both the technical potential for renewable energy development and the more realistic potential for development in states that have Renewable Portfolio Standards(requirements that renewable energy make up a certain percentage of the state’s energy consumption) to drive demand. The campaign has

This solar array in Fort Carson, Colorado was built atop a closed landfill (Photo credit: U.S. Army Environmental Command)

looked across many types of renewable energy: both utility- and community-scale wind, off-grid wind and solar, concentrating and photovoltaic solar, biopower, various geothermal technologies, and landfill gas. And in California, the program has developed priority lists and maps of the top 75 of over 11,000 tracked sites in the state, providing a road map to the best places for producing lots of wildlife-friendly renewable energy.

We recognize that we won’t be able to meet all of our nation’s tremendous energy needs from capped landfills alone. However, every little bit helps, and in many places these projects provide good economic returns without risk to wildlife or local communities. In fact, that’s why Defenders, through our California office, will be working with the EPA during the next couple of months to figure out how we can apply the REPowering America database and siting recommendations to the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP). We hope that southern California’s contaminated and disturbed lands can make a big contribution to meeting the state’s energy needs for the coming decades without putting wildlife and wild lands at risk.

From my perspective, finding the right places to put renewable energy development is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves, our future, and our country’s wildlife. We need an enormous amount of renewable energy to combat climate change, which coupled with habitat loss is the single biggest long-term threat to wildlife and biodiversity. Taking places that we’ve already damaged and putting wind, solar, geothermal, and biogas plants there instead of in healthy habitats is a true win for wildlife.