By Paula Musto
North Carolina ranks third in the nation for solar energy initiatives, behind only California and Arizona. Buncombe County takes the quest for environmentally friendly energy so seriously that it has adopted a 100-percent renewable energy goal for county operations by 2030 and for the entire community by 2042.
“We’re halfway there,” Buncombe County commissioner Parker Sloan says of the 2030 goal, citing a slew of projects now under way that, in roughly 18 months, will allow 39 county and city buildings to generate a portion of their energy from solar panels.
“Solar energy is the best tool we have to wean our country off fossil fuels,” says Sloan, who was elected to the county commission earlier this year and has been a vocal champion of renewable energy. “Solar equipment sits on fields and creates electricity with the sun. It’s pretty remarkable technology. Hopefully, other communities will follow our lead once they understand the substantial long-term taxpayers’ savings through dramatically reduced power bills.”
In what he calls his “day job,” Sloan serves as the community and economic development manager for Cypress Creek Renewables, a Durham-headquartered company that builds and operates solar facilities throughout the US. He also serves on his company’s Pollinator Task Force that studies and implements solar strategies to help save habitats for pollinators.
Pollinators—including bees, butterflies and birds—are critical to our food chain, but many species are threatened due to habitat loss, pesticides and climate change. The decline in pollinators is endangering food supplies worldwide, negatively impacting the health of ecosystems and wildlife. Carefully managed solar energy installations, known as solar farms, could help.
Solar equipment typically has a lifespan of 25 years, says Sloan, so converting fields of solar panels into wildlife habitats can have a lasting benefit to pollinator populations in two ways. First, instead of planting groundcovers that provide little insect benefit, solar installations can incorporate native landscapes favored by pollinator species. Second, land for solar panel fields is most often leased and, unlike other development, solar fields are generally considered temporary usage of land.
“Solar energy can be seen as a land preservation tool,” Sloan says. “Unlike residential development and commercial sprawl, solar energy farms can be disassembled at the end of their life. With careful management we can take degraded agriculture land and actually improve it.”
Due to a hilly topography, the Asheville area has only a handful of solar farms—large flat fields with rows of panels that convert light from the sun into electricity that can be used to power electrical loads. Currently, there are three such installations: two privately owned properties in Leicester and on the Biltmore Estate, along with a public-private partnership with Duke Electric on a former landfill site in Woodfin.
Dusty Miller, an environmental scientist with Black & Veatch, an international sustainable infrastructure consulting company, says to protect native habitats it’s preferable that developers put solar farms on unused agricultural land rather than heavily forested areas. “That’s what we advise,” he says, “but there are many factors that go into site selection, including availability, cost of land and proximity to the power grid.”
Throughout NC more than 11,000 solar installations cover some 40,000 acres of land. Over the next five years, solar capacity in the US is expected to more than double. Overall, solar installations are thought to have a positive environmental impact, especially with careful management and initiatives like those benefiting pollinators. However, there are concerns.
These include risks to avian populations flying through solar panel areas, construction-related disruptions in habitat areas and a loss of biodiversity. But most conservationists say the benefits outweigh concerns.
According to Tom Tribble, past president of the Blue Ridge Audubon Society, studies show nearly two-thirds of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. If immediate action is taken to stabilize carbon emissions and reverse warming trends, nearly half of the threatened species would no longer be vulnerable.
“All of us can make a difference by understanding the threat of global warming and taking action to reduce greenhouse gases,” says Tribble. “Installing solar is one strategy.”
As solar increases worldwide, we can expect emerging environmental issues. Renewable energy proponents, however, are optimistic. Through innovative measures and careful management, we can minimize the impact on wildlife while benefiting our planet.
Paula Musto is an education outreach volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit committed to wildlife conservation. To learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.