Solar energy is a boon for the environment, but some methods can be harmful to birds and other wildlife. Here’s how to go solar safely.
If you install solar panels on your roof, don’t expect your birds to show any appreciation. At best, they’ll bless them with a splatter of droppings. But if they knew better, they’d be grateful, because installing solar panels at home is one of the best ways to help birds avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Why do solar panels help birds?
Currently, about two-thirds of the electricity used in the United States comes from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. In a furnace, those materials combust and release carbon pollution, which forms a thin layer in the atmosphere and traps heat like a blanket. Over the past century, that greenhouse-gas blanket has grown so thick that here on the ground we can feel and see its effects through rising temperatures, which in turn affect long-term trends in rainfall, polar ice, and sea levels.
So can birds. And on the wing, they can quickly react to subtle changes in their environments—temperature, food, water, habitat—and shift their ranges. Already we’re seeing evidence of this in response to the changing climate. Carolina Wrens, Northern Mockingbirds, and Tufted Titmice are creeping into the Midwest. Caspian Terns are nesting at Cape Krusenstern National Monument in Alaska, nearly 1,000 miles farther north than previous recorded. Horned Puffins are following food farther north into Arctic waters than ever before, where they’re evicting Black Guillemots from their burrows and devouring eggs and chicks.
That’s just the start of the changes to come. The changing climate threatens more than 300 species of North American birds and thousands more worldwide. Cutting carbon pollution is essential to avoid the worst impacts on birds and other wildlife.
In contrast to coal, oil, and natural gas, solar panels produce plentiful electricity without releasing any carbon pollution. By taking the step to install them on your roof, you ensure that your energy use won’t contribute to the climate problem.
In addition, each solar panel installation is an investment in our future economy driven by renewable energy. The more demand exists for solar panels, the cheaper their production becomes. And the more people that install solar panels on their rooftops or buy into community solar gardens, the louder the message to communities and elected officials that people care about climate change and protecting the environment.
It’s clear that solar energy can have big benefits for birds. Still, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are several different types of solar technologies, and some types are better for wildlife than others.
What type of solar is good for birds?
Photovoltaic (PV) solar is what you’ve likely seen on the roofs of houses or in a community solar garden. A solar panel is composed of hundreds of photovoltaic cells, which collect sunlight and transform it into electricity.
The presence of PV panels on a roof—whether on a house, office building, or other structure—doesn’t disrupt wildlife habitat and takes advantage of already-built space.
Large-scale PV installations (like utility-scale solar, solar parks, solar power stations, or solar farms) place many large solar panels in a single location to generate electricity for utility companies to distribute to many homes. These large-scale solar farms can benefit birds overall, but it’s vital for developers to minimize their harm to wildlife. For example, some solar developers in Minnesota and other states are growing native plant species around solar panels to benefit birds and other pollinators.
In the Western United States, these large-scale installations are often planned for desert areas that receive a lot of sunlight. However, these same desert lands are often habitat for birds and other wildlife. It’s important for installers to consider solar farm placement and avoid uprooting habitat wherever possible. In fact, some states are working with conservation groups to choose locations for solar farms that will minimize harm to wildlife, such as Audubon California’s work to shape the state’s new Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
Another problem with large solar farms is that birds sometimes mistake the glossy blue expanse of solar panels for bodies of water and try to land on them. This is called a “lake effect.” Birds have been found dead, wounded, or stranded at several solar projects in the desert. The “lake effect” puts waterbirds in particular at risk because some species can’t take off from the ground; they require a running start on the water’s surface. Some developers are adding special patterns to their panels or using other strategies to reduce the risk of crash landings.
What type of solar is not so good for birds?
Thermal solar, also known as concentrating solar, generates electricity by focusing solar rays to transform a fluid into steam. That steam then turns a turbine to power a generator.
These installations can kill birds. Some concentrated solar installations arrange a huge number of mirrors that point to a central tower, and the concentrated solar towers create an incredibly high-heat area that’s dangerous for anything to touch. What’s worse, the light beam and surrounding mirrors actually attract birds and the insects they like to eat.
The potential harm of this solar power method can be seen at the Ivanpah concentrated solar tower in California. In 2015, Ivanpah killed about seven birds per gigawatt hour of electricity produced—or more than 6,000 birds estimated over the course of the year. By comparison, the climate change impacts of burning fossil fuels are estimated to kill only one bird per gigawatt hour. Because of this, Audubon opposes any further construction of concentrated solar towers.
All energy development has some impact on habitats and wildlife, and in the big picture, the threat of climate change poses a greater risk to entire species than renewable energy installations generally pose to individual birds. However, it’s crucial to reduce these projects’ impacts on wildlife as much as possible. For this reason, Audubon continues to work with developers and elected officials to choose locations for new renewable energy projects that take birds and their habitats into consideration, and to call for better methods to reduce bird strikes and deaths at all types of energy facilities.
By Lynsy Smithson-Stanley and Liz Bergstrom
Lynsy Smithson-Stanley is Audubon’s Director of Climate Communications and Strategy, and Liz Bergstrom is Audubon’s Climate Content Manager.