”Renewable energy is a business.“ What happens when cleaner power and conservation don't see eye-to-eye

The construction of wind, solar and hydro electricity plants may be good for our move away from fossil fuels. But some are moving in on some of the world’s most vulnerable habitats.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 30 Sept 2020, 13:10 BST, Updated 30 Mar 2021, 12:45 BST
Wind and solar power have been widely adopted as cleaner steps away from fossil fuel-derived energy. ...

Wind and solar power have been widely adopted as cleaner steps away from fossil fuel-derived energy. But scientists are advising a rethink when it comes to siting the developments - many of which have been proposed on areas important for biodiversity, which is also facing a crisis. 

Photograph by Siegfried Kuttig, Alamy

The worldwide race to develop renewable energy is in danger of undermining one of its key sustainability goals – by damaging and destroying areas of unique biodiversity. Research has uncovered an alarming overlap between some of the planet’s most precious habitats and the location of both operational and planned wind, solar and hydro plants.

Reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are fuelling climate change by replacing coal and gas fired power plants with renewable energy facilities is high on the agenda of many of the 140 nations that signed up to the Paris Climate Change Accord. But the construction of these renewable electricity facilities, and the mining for the minerals and metals required to build them, has to be carefully and sensitively planned to avoid despoiling areas of irreplaceable biodiversity, say researchers. 

A recent study published in Global Change Biology found more than 2,200 renewable energy facilities and a further 900 planned in Protected Areas (PAs), Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and wilderness. Lead author, José Rehbein, Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy consultant at The World Bank, says, “Energy facilities and the infrastructure around them, such as roads and increased human activity, can be incredibly damaging to the natural environment. These developments are not compatible with biodiversity conservation efforts.” 

A huge array of solar panels at a photovoltaic power station on shallows in Ningbo City, eastern China. Whilst solar has been considered the most portable generator of renewable energy, the increase in large scale plants has raised concern. Many such energy plants are now being installed 'floating' in coastal areas or reservoirs, reducing the need for hydroelectric schemes - but potentially posing challenges of their own.  

Photograph by Cynthia Lee, Alamy

He and his fellow researchers wholeheartedly support a rapid transition to renewable energy to avoid catastrophic climate change and prevent species extinctions. But they are calling on policy makers and energy firms to ensure that the development of renewable energy facilities is not at the expense of biodiversity.

“We found hydro plants in the middle of areas of conservation, and the same is happening for wind power,” said Rehbein. Solar presents less of an issue because while photovoltaic panels occupy significant land space, they can be moved a few kilometres north, east, south or west to avoid encroaching on a protected area. But wind turbines need to be stationed in an uninterrupted flow of wind, potentially posing a threat to birds and bats, and hydro plants inevitably disrupt ecosystems upstream and downstream of their dams. 

“Rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems. Any policy that aims to conserve nature must prioritise the free flow of rivers.”

Michele Thieme

Construction and habitat clearance 

All new facilities bring the risk of habitat clearance to build the site - and its access roads, pylons and cables required to distribute the electricity.

Globally, only a small percentage (17.4%) of renewable energy plants find are sited in sensitive conservation areas, but this is still a significant issue, says Rehbein, because other industry and infrastructure is not being built in these places. Germany, Spain and China have the highest number of overlaps between current renewable facilities and important conservation areas, while over half of the overlapping facilities under development are in India, South East Asia, South America or Africa in regions that “are incredibly important for global biodiversity.” 

Rehbein fears that the urgency of the international effort to mitigate climate change is giving renewable energy too powerful a hand over the claims of biodiversity protection when it comes to the location of solar, wind and hydro plants. Sustainability involves more than simply carbon, he says, arguing that biodiversity deserves equal status with climate change as a global goal. He believes that the conservation community must engage in industrial level strategic planning and provide governments and developers with clear maps of land that is critically important for biodiversity.

Infrastructure for wind farms has resulted in habitat modification or clearing due to the need for the turbines to be located in areas where wind is necessarily consistent. Many of these areas have clashed with protected environments. 

Photograph by A.P.S. UK, Alamy

But, he cautions, “Renewable energy is a business, unlike conservation.” With energy firms seeking a return on their investment, there is a pressure to select the most convenient rather than most sustainable sites.

Unlike illegal deforestation and pollution, one of the complicating factors with renewable energy facilities is that most developments that degrade conservation areas are government sanctioned and legal, says the University of Amsterdam’s Dr James Allan, who also worked on the report.

“Something needs to change in the policies and the way the world looks at development,” he says, adding that there is sufficient “degraded, uncontested land with renewable energy potential that we don’t need to go into protected areas,” to build new solar and wind farms. “The key is ensuring that renewable energy facilities are built in places where they do not damage biodiversity,” he says.

Allan also shines the spotlight on the unintended consequences of building new renewable energy infrastructure, not simply the facilities themselves plants, but the roads required to support them. These can attract migrant workers, providing the genesis for new small towns in wilderness areas that previously had no human presence.

Hydro's hidden impact

Of all the sources of renewable energy, hydro appears to have the greatest detrimental impact on local biodiversity, affecting plants and animals that rely on the free flow of water, upstream, locally and downstream. 

“Rivers are the lifeblood of ecosystems. Any policy that aims to conserve nature must prioritise the free flow of rivers,” says Michele Thieme, lead freshwater scientist at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). She has just published a new global assessment that found 1,249 large dams in protected areas and a further 509 dams planned or under construction in Protected Areas, including Valbona Valley National Park in Albania and Kaliwa River Forest Reserve in the Philippines.

“The sheer number of dams that are planned within protected areas is alarming,” says Thieme. “Government and industry policies must prevent the development of dams planned within these areas.”

A water mill in the Valbona River Valley, Valbona National Park. This region of Albania is one of the protected areas with proposals for hydroelectric schemes on the table.  

Photograph by Peter Eastland, Alamy

She says there are many documented cases of dams that have had a negative impact on biodiversity, citing as an example, two dams in the Madeira River in Brazilian Amazon which, “while providing electricity to Brazil, have caused more destructive and extensive upstream flooding than anticipated in Bolivia, and upstream impacts on migratory catfish catches in Bolivia.”

The Madeira River dams flooded 606km2, of which 78% had originally been forest, exceeding flooding impact predictions by 160 km2. Moreover, local populations displaced by the flooding cleared new areas of the forest in which to live. Such is the negative impact of dams on local flora and fauna that Thiemeeven calls for the removal of existing dams in protected areas as a first step to restoring river systems. In the US, two large dams on the Elwha River have been removed to to enable migratory salmon to recolonise habitat within Olympic National Park.

Mineral and metal mining for renewable facilities

A further unintended consequence of the race for renewables is the rise in demand for the materials required to build, produce, distribute and store energy from renewable facilities. This is leading to an increase in mining for metals and minerals such as copper, cobalt, lithium and even iron, with many of the active and planned mines located in key areas of biodiversity. Globally, approximately eight per cent of mining areas overlap with PAs, seven per cent overlap with KBAs and 16 per cent overlap with wilderness, according to Dr Laura Sonter, from the University of Queensland.

The Santo Antonio Dam on the Madeira River, Porto Velho, Brazil. Critics of the river's two dams asserted that the hydro electric plant they power was fast-tracked without due environmental impact assessment due to it being a 'green' power – and therefore sets a precedent for future, similar schemes.    

Photograph by Pulsar Images, Alamy

She says that without strategic planning these mines could see threats to biodiversity outstrip those averted by climate change mitigation. Her new study, published in Nature Communications, reports that while habitat loss and degradation currently threaten more than 80 per cent of endangered species, climate change directly affects 20 per cent.

“It’s quite probable that there are some species, ecosystems and really biodiverse places that are likely to be more affected by producing more renewables than by climate change itself,” she says.

There is little flexibility in the location of mines, given the immovable nature of underground resources, but the conservation world’s accepted mitigation hierarchy can still apply. In the first instance this involves avoiding biodiversity losses by minimising the footprint of the project and directing supply roads around protected areas. It may also be possible to attempt landscape restoration after the working life of a mine, and potentially to offset biodiversity losses by undertaking compensatory action at another site, says Sonter.

While she still sees climate change as the most important environmental issue to tackle, she adds that “there is urgent need to understand the size of mining risks to biodiversity and strategically account for them in conservation plans and policies. Yet, none of these potential trade-offs are seriously considered in international climate policies.” 

As the clock ticks, the answer, says Sonter, is to strengthen policies to avoid the negative consequences of mining in places that are vital for for conservation, and to develop landscape plans that explicitly address current and future mining threats. 


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