When you turn on the lights, you probably don’t think about Canada lynx or California condors, but the connection is real. We’re crowding out wildlife. Not just in the obvious ways by building strip malls, cutting down rainforests, and sprawling into suburbs, but through our supply chain for virtually everything we consume – including energy.
The fossil fuel industry takes up a huge amount of land through extracting, refining and transporting fuels, generating electricity at huge power plants, and transmitting that electricity over large distances. Plus, there’s climate change, the number-one cause of habitat loss worldwide.
We need to transition from dirty energy to cleaner, renewable sources as swiftly as possible, but for wildlife threatened by the demands of our expanding human population, it’s not as simple as building giant solar and wind farms.
Large-scale renewable sources can take up large amounts of otherwise undisturbed habitat. Take, for example, the Mojave Desert, where solar installations may seem like a no-brainer but could actually threaten unique and biodiversity-rich ecosystems, including threatened desert tortoise habitat. When you add in the land needed and energy lost to transmit this electricity over great distances, these large renewable farms’ footprints are even bigger.
We’re all for renewable energy, but it has to be done right – not just for wildlife and wild places but for future generations who will need clean energy and functioning, wild ecosystems.
Distributed solar generation – that is, solar panels placed where energy is needed, such as on rooftops – can generate much cleaner energy without taking up additional space. California alone has the potential to power its energy needs up to five times over simply by placing solar panels on and around existing infrastructure, such as homes, businesses and government buildings.
It doesn’t have to be just rooftops, but all compatible surface areas – technology ranging from thin-film, transparent panels over windows to large panels installed as shades over parking lots and roadways can all become the norm. And with these smaller local solar arrays, communities could have some ownership in the energy system, rather than be subject to utilities’ and fossil fuel interests’ profit-based decision-making.
So why aren’t there solar panels on every rooftop and photovoltaic cells on every available surface?
Some of this technology is still up-and-coming, but the bigger barrier is energy policy and regulations that continue to favour fossil fuel development. In order to get a large portion of our electricity from distributed generation, we’ll have to invest in large-scale grid upgrades, energy-storage technologies, and a market that makes it much easier for people to get connected. We’ll also have to improve efficiency to reduce energy use and waste as our population – and energy demands – continue to grow.
The way forward is to support net metering, community solar, and similar policies and programmes that make it feasible for homeowners, businesses and communities to install solar panels without having to overcome barriers such as unfair fees and unruly permitting processes.
There will be battles for distributed solar in every state, because the big energy companies don’t want to give up the status quo. In 2015 alone, 46 states saw actions to update key solar policies, many of which would prevent access to rooftop solar. We don’t have to accept that there are only two options – a fossil fuel-based energy system or one largely made up of utility-scale and corporate-owned renewable energy sources – both of which would be devastating for wildlife and wild places.
We can have renewable energy through distributed solar without making endangered wildlife pay the price. It can happen – but we’ll need people power to make sure that politicians understand what’s at stake, what our opportunity is and the right path toward the future.
Check out the Centre for Biological Diversity’s Wild Energy page for more information on the connection between distributed solar and wildlife.