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Solar Energy, Animals, and Ecosystems

Making large-scale solar truly sustainable for all forms of life

We’ve talked before about the (largely unnecessary) fears that some homeowners have about wildlife damaging their solar panels. Today we thought it would be a fun change from our normal content to take a look at how solar energy and animals can productively co-exist.

Although roof-mounted residential solar systems need little maintenance, the ground-mounted solar panels usually found in utility-scale “solar farms” require more upkeep. Unless they’re placed in a desert, ground-mount solar farms are susceptible to being overgrown by grass and plant life, reducing their efficiency. Overgrowth maintenance is one area where animals can play a helpful role in keeping solar systems functioning smoothly. Some large-scale solar farms have turned to using herds of sheep to help sustainably manage the land. The solar panels are kept free of overgrowth without the need to devote time and resources to mowing – all the sheep have to do is chow down! Since some of the best sites for solar farms also tend to make ideal grazing space for animals, solutions like this also eliminate the problem of competition for land.

Solar farms in Japan have recently experienced a unique wildlife-related issue: for unclear reasons, local corvids – crows and ravens – seem to enjoy dropping rocks and other debris on solar panels from the air, sometimes causing them to overheat or in rare cases even crack. In response, solar farm managers have hired local practitioners of falconry, who use their trained birds to patrol the area for the mischief-making corvids. Although the crows and ravens are much larger than the birds usually eaten by the raptors, meaning direct confrontations are unlikely, the presence of the predators is enough to deter the troublemakers and prevent damage to the solar panels. This is a great example of outside-the-box thinking being used to solve a problem in a sustainable, humane way.

As solar energy adoption takes off, studying the effects of solar infrastructure on local ecosystems is becoming an increasingly popular field of research for scientists. Although there are problems to overcome, researchers are also already discovering some benefits to local ecosystems from large-scale solar. One is that solar farms can preserve habitat for pollinating insects like bees. Since most solar farms will remain in place for decades, that means decades will go by without concern of habitat being lost to development, allowing pollinators like bees to thrive and play their key role in the growth of the food we eat.

The massive increase of solar energy capacity which we need to fully shift away from fossil fuels is sure to present the potential for ecological disruption, requiring conscientious effort and innovative ideas. After all, the goal of sustainable energy solutions like solar isn’t just to make people more comfortable – it’s to preserve the ecosystem for all the types of creatures that call our planet home. Although there will be more challenges to overcome, the positive outcomes already being seen as solar energy stakeholders find ways to reliably generate clean energy while avoiding harm to or in some cases even improving the health of the local ecosystem should give us all reason for optimism.

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