Sustainability of utility-scale solar energy – critical ecological concepts

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Abstract

Renewable energy development is an arena where ecological, political, and socioeconomic values collide. Advances in renewable energy will incur steep environmental costs to landscapes in which facilities are constructed and operated. Scientists – including those from academia, industry, and government agencies – have only recently begun to quantify trade-offs in this arena, often using ground-mounted, utility-scale solar energy facilities (USSE, ≥1 megawatt) as a model. Here, we discuss five critical ecological concepts applicable to the development of more sustainable USSE with benefits over fossil-fuel-generated energy: (1) more sustainable USSE development requires careful evaluation of trade-offs between land, energy, and ecology; (2) species responses to habitat modification by USSE vary; (3) cumulative and large-scale ecological impacts are complex and challenging to mitigate; (4) USSE development affects different types of ecosystems and requires customized design and management strategies; and (5) long-term ecological consequences associated with USSE sites must be carefully considered. These critical concepts provide a framework for reducing adverse environmental impacts, informing policy to establish and address conservation priorities, and improving energy production sustainability.

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