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Wind, sun, and wildlife: Do wind and solar energy development “short-circuit” conservation in the western United States?

June 26, 2020

Despite the trade-offs between renewable energy development, land use, humans, and wildlife, wind and solar development continues to transform the southwestern US into a green energy landscape. While renewable energy reduces carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels, many studies have emerged on the associated ecological and social impacts of this technology. Here, we review the current state of knowledge on the nexus between wildlife conservation and energy development in the western US since 2010. We revisit pertinent ecological concepts and questions presented in earlier reviews to assess how far the field has progressed in mitigating negative effects. Specifically, we ask, what density or design of development maximizes energy benefits while minimizing negative effects on wildlife, whether the results of previously-deficient before-after control-impact studies are now more readily-available, and ultimately, can the impacts of renewable energy development on wildlife be mitigated? We also provide a case study on the federally-protected Desert Tortoise, a conservation-reliant species in the Desert Southwest US, to highlight efforts to mitigate the negative effects of renewable energy development. Our review concludes that successful mitigation is possible via use of spatial decision support tools, applying novel wildlife deterrence and detection systems developed for existing installed facilities, and incorporating impact studies that provide managers with conservation metrics for evaluating different future development land-use scenarios.

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