Dr. Josh Ennen argues for more research on solar energy’s impact on wildlife

Jan. 17, 2012
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

Previously a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Arizona, Dr. Josh Ennen ’03 and Jeff Lovich have published a paper in BioScience that argues for more research on the impact of utility-scale solar energy development on wildlife in the Desert Southwest.

The paper, considered controversial in some circles, is getting the attention of both environmentalists and politicians nationwide. BioScience is a monthly publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

“Essentially, the term ‘green energy’ conveys a good sentiment to the public because it isn’t fossil fuels,” said Ennen, a visiting instructor of biology at the College. “However, there is no free ride with energy and humans. There is always a cost to energy, and in the case of utility-scale solar energy, we don’t know all the costs to wildlife.”

Ennen spent 15 months helping Lovich, another biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, compile data on existing peer-reviewed studies and write the paper. Working out of the Southwest Biological Science Center in Flagstaff, Ariz., they found that few scientists had published research on the environmental impacts, ecological implications and environmental risks of renewable energy, especially solar. Going back more than 30 years, they found only one peer-reviewed study that addressed the direct impacts of large-scale solar energy development and operations on any kind of wildlife.

And more people should be concerned about that, Ennen said.

“The federal government is pushing and subsidizing renewable energy as a means to alleviate our dependence on foreign oil for environmental purposes. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Energy have drafted an environmental impact statement for the sole purpose of developing a Solar Energy Program that will support utility-scale solar energy development on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lands.”

Unfortunately, Ennen said, the statement does not minimize and mitigate the impacts those facilities will have on wildlife and the ecosystems.

“One example of how utility-scale solar energy facilities will adversely impact wildlife and ecosystems is the amount of land required to produce electricity from solar energy,” he explained. “Solar energy facilities are usually very large, occupying upwards of 10,000 acres, which is approximately one-third the size of San Francisco.”

The amount of land potentially disturbed by all the proposed utility-scale solar energy developments could top millions of acres, Ennen said, pointing out that in addition to land for solar collectors and power plants, more land would be consumed by new roads, power lines and other disturbances that coincide with construction.

“Given that habitat loss is the leading anthropogenic factor of loss of biodiversity, converting large areas of land into solar energy facilities will undoubtedly have some consequences – some more easily predicted than others.”

Because the climate of the southwest better supports solar power, most utility-scale solar energy developments are targeted for that region. And contrary to popular belief, Ennen said, the area is biologically diverse. Land considered for solar energy developments include habitats for several sensitive, threatened and endangered species, including Agassiz’s desert tortoise, sage grouse, Mohave ground squirrel and flat-tailed horned lizard.

In the December 2011 BioScience article, titled “Wildlife Conservation and Solar Energy Development in the Desert Southwest, United States,” Ennen and Lovich highlight several topics and areas where solar energy could significantly impact wildlife.

They’re working on a similar article that addresses wind energy.

While not requiring students in his SCI350: Science and Society course to read his research findings, Ennen does have class assignments that require them to consider various arguments surrounding renewable energy. After introducing the likelihood of habitat destruction as a result of utility-scale solar energy production, he said most students admit that they hadn’t considered that “cost.”

“I want them to be more informed citizens,” he said. “They need to know the pros and cons of energy production.”