Key Takeaways 

  • Renewable energy and conservation have similar missions: to protect the climate for healthy people and thriving ecosystems.
  • New renewable energy projects that neglect ecological impact will face financial, reputational, and project cancelation risks.
  • Integrating environmental factors into renewable energy projects can result in a speedy approval process.
  • Starting discussions around conservation impacts early in the project process with appropriate experts and agencies is a key to avoiding risk and capitalizing on opportunities.   
  • The Site Renewables Right tool from The Nature Conservancy offers information on potential ecological impacts to site locations that can be used to help guide discussions with state wildlife agencies and local conservation organizations. 

The Clash of Clean Energy and Conservation

According to the World Health Organization, 9 out of 10 people breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants. Fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are the main drivers of our polluted airways. These dirty fuels are also the leading drivers of the climate crisis. Decarbonizing our electricity grids with clean and renewable energy is one solution to clean up the air we breathe while also reducing the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere from electricity generation. 

In order to meet climate goals, it is projected that by 2030, we will need to build out 8x more renewable energy than we have today. It is estimated that 0.05 – 5% of total land will be needed for solar energy alone. During this accelerated build out of renewable energy, locations of plants and planning decisions can have massive impacts on the ecosystems and communities they are built in. 

What’s at Stake?

It would be counter intuitive to build renewable energy in areas that threaten the very habitats and species that the clean energy climate action is trying to save. Endangered bird migratory corridors, vital pollinator breeding locations, and critical biodiversity habitats could be disrupted, uprooted, or flat out destroyed if conservation is not brought into the decision making process of new renewable energy projects. Devastating ecological impacts could drag financial and reputational risk into a business and their future projects. Most of those negative aspects can be mitigated through proper planning, clear communication with relevant people, and utilization of tools and resources.   

Skip the Risks, Start  a Conservation Conversation

How serious are the risks associated with excluding land use considerations? The truth is, they could slow down or dismantle the project completely. If there are considerable environmental or social impacts associated with a build, permits can be tabled or projects can be canceled. We all know that these issues would end up being quite costly.

Before committing a project to a site, it is important to be aware of the land use impacts of that site, especially when it comes to conservation and the surrounding ecosystems. By starting conversations around land use impacts early on in the planning process, sites that negatively impact sensitive nature areas can be avoided, which in turn will side-step the risks associated with such sites. 

Eco-Friendly = Project-Friendly 

Assessing environmental impacts early in the site selection process has the potential to speed up the approval process. If conservation has been baked into selecting a site, the Environmental Impact Assessment may be a smoother process. Considering project impacts on ecosystems can also boost reputational outputs that provide more opportunities and improve connections for future projects. 

Save Time & Money With the Nature Conservancy Site Renewables Right Tool

The Nature Conservancy has developed an online ArcGIS screening tool that provides renewable energy developers with high level information on critical species and habitats for 19 states. We sat down with Nathan Cummings, Director of Renewable Energy Programs at the Great Plains Division of the Nature Conservancy, to discuss the Site Renewables Right tool

“If the Nature Conservancy were to develop a renewable energy project, this is the data we would look at first,” said Nate, “[the Site Renewables Right tool] is a 13 layer product with 100s of data sets that have been taken over several years…. It provides a level of comfort, showing what the latest available science in this space is saying about these potential impacts, and helps to levelize the discussion. There’s a lot we don’t know, but what we do know is in that map… If you are developing a project in a new area that you are unfamiliar with, then you are able to see the different risks and data associated with sites.” 

If a project is happening in one of the 19 states covered by the tool, organizations can locate potential sites, gather significant environmental information, and discuss that information with environmental experts. Nathan went on to explain how businesses can best use the tool in planning phases of their projects. 

“This should not be used instead of consulting with state agency partners or staying within state guidelines. Instead, it can be used to help guide conversations with them… You could go into it and see – ‘okay I know that there are potential bat conservation issues and there are connected land issues. Let me bring those questions to my state wildlife agency partner or local conservation partner and see what they think.” 

The information collected from the Site Renewables Right tool can be used to engage in discussions with experts (US Fish and Wildlife Services, state fish and game agencies, other conservation agencies, etc.) to better understand the environmental and biodiversity impacts associated with different sites. 

“We don’t have all the answers,” said Nathan, “but  [the Site Renewables Right tool] can be a helpful resource to help guide conversations. Providing data that can then be taken to the experts to discuss the risks of a site.” While there are issues with every site, understanding ecological impacts can help make informed decisions on which project sites maximize production needs while minimizing risk. 

Steps to incorporate conservation into decision making

  • Start early. Establish conservation goals that align with company goals. 
  • Gather information about potential project sites by utilizing tools and resources such as Site Renewables Right.
  • Engage with appropriate stakeholders to address pain points and opportunities – including but not limited to: 

US Fish and Wildlife

State fish and game agencies 

Conservation agencies

Wildlife organizations (ex. The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society)

Local communities. 

  • Establish in-depth understanding of ecological and social impacts of building on potential sites. 
  • Accurately assess the risks associated and clearly communicate those to the team, clients, investors, and other important shareholders or decision makers.
  • Remember that renewable energy and conservation have similar missions: to protect the climate for healthy people and thriving ecosystems. 

Becoming a positive business force

All humans depend on a healthy plant: you, me, the people we love, and the strangers across the globe. In order to ensure that we have a healthy planet we must pursue protecting both the climate and biodiversity. There is no either or. Biodiversity needs the climate, and the climate needs biodiversity. Most importantly, we need them both. 

We are in a crucial moment to decarbonize our electricity sector by increasing renewable energy. There are important choices to be made about where and how renewables are built. Make sure that the projects that you are a part of incorporate ecological impacts early in the decision making process. Developing renewable energy will always be hard, but you have a chance to make the hard work matter.