Green vs Green: Conflict Between Renewable Energy and Biodiversity Loss

by Chloe Brenner

            In the scientific community, it is common knowledge that accelerating wind and solar power generation is a critical element of the renewable energy transition. In fact, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that solar power generation will grow 75% and wind 11% between 2023 and 2025.[1] However, this ambitious expansion is not without controversy. Solar and wind technologies have myriad benefits in addition to emissions reductions such as a lower levelized cost compared to coal and natural gas, and health benefits due to air pollution avoided.[2] Despite these well-researched benefits, construction of new renewables operations continues to face backlash from powerful entities such as conservationists, fossil fuel interests, and local communities.[3] In fact, research from Brown University’s Climate and Develoment Lab demonstrates that oil and gas companies stoke opposition by discretly supporting local communities concerned about their quality of life and land value if renewable developments occur.[4] This organized opposition threatens to disrupt renewable energy projects funded by the Inflation Reduction Act which allocated over $280 billion to wind and solar.[5] In order to best chart a path through the existing opposition, we must begin by understanding the conservationist perspective. 

            Some conservationists are concerned that solar and wind (both terrestrial and offshore) projects can contribute to diminished biodiversity, habitat destruction, and animal mortality.3 Utilty-scale photo voltaic solar farms require vast amounts of land, often 10x what is required for fossil fuel plants.[6] These large swaths of land are often degraded as a byproduct of the solar panel installations and can lead to habitat degradation for terrestrial animals such as birds reliant on these regions as migration corridors.5 In addition, offshore wind is often cited as detrimental to resource conservation. The rotating spikes and invasive construction of the turbines have demonstrated threats to seabird and cetacean survivorship, and separately, the cables required to transmit the energy generated to land can disturb biodiverse seabeds which are home to critical ocean species such as phytoplankton and seagrass.[7]

            One recent example of a renewable energy dispute is the case of Vineyard Wind, off the coast of Massachusetts, where I am from. Developed by Copenhagen Infrastructure and Avangrid, the project seeks to generate 800MW of energy to Massachusetts residents.[8] While the venture has been championed by the state government as well as the Biden Administration, marine conservation groups have filed four lawsuits against the operation. They allege that the US Bureau of Ocean Management has inadequately accounted for the dangers the turbines will pose to marine mammals and fish, including the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. The suits cite sound pollution the turbines will cause in the water as their main conservation concern.7 In addition to marine conservationists, local fishermen and Nantucket residents are plaintiffs as they argue that the project will impede their businesses and quality of life. The outcome of these cases will likely shape how offshore wind projects are sited and approved in the coming years.[9]

            So, circling back, how can policy address the seemingly conflicting environmental priorities of renewable energy generation and biodiversity? One promising avenue is requiring a quantifiable metric for biodiversity impacts in the siting phase of projects. Hammar et al. (2021) discuss that often biodiversity impacts lack supportive empirical evidence, so introducing a measurement for this factor might reshape renewable energy siting.[10] In addition, a critical step in a project approval process should be requiring comprehensive environmental impact assessments before a project is approved. This should be required by state departments of energy and other regulatory bodies that are responsible for the siting and construction process.9 While these command and control strategies would likely be effective, another idea is a market-based approach where renewable energy companies can apply for state funding or preferential site selection if they provide substantial quantitative evidence of biodiversity impacts. Although habitat destruction and species endangerment may seem an intractable impact or a “necessary evil” of renewable power, these mitigation approaches present promising policy alternatives. 

[1]Antonio , K. (2024, January 16). Solar and wind to lead growth of U.S. Power Generation for the next two years. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).,476%20billion%20kWh%20in%202025.  

[2]Millstein, D., Wiser, R., Bolinger, M., & Barbose, G. (2017). The climate and air-quality benefits of wind and solar power in the United States. Nature Energy2(9), 1-10.

[3]Adie Tomer, J. W. K., Gribbin, D., Frank, C., John Bistline, K. C., Indermit Gill, M. A. K., & Joseph W. Kane, A. T. (2022, March 9). Renewables, land use, and local opposition in the United States. Brookings Institute .

[4]Hanley, S. (2024, March 1). Brown University study documents links between National & Local Offshore Wind Opponents. CleanTechnica.

[5]Nieuwenhuijzen, V. V., Reinders, S., Willner, M., & Utkarsh, A. (2023, October 31). The US inflation reduction act is driving clean-energy investment one year in. Goldman Sachs Assest Management .  

[6]Rehbein, J. A., Watson, J. E., Lane, J. L., Sonter, L. J., Venter, O., Atkinson, S. C., & Allan, J. R. (2020). Renewable energy development threatens many globally important biodiversity areas. Global change biology26(5), 3040-3051.

[7]Hammar, L., Perry, D., & Gullström, M. (2015). Offshore wind power for marine conservation. Open Journal of Marine Science6(1), 66-78.

[8] Vu , K. (2023, October 22). Turbines in Trouble: The Controversy Behind Vineyard Wind & Offshore Wind in Massachusetts. Harvard Political Review .

[9]Storrow, B. (2024, January 26). Why vineyard wind is a legal test case for US Clean Energy. E&E News by POLITICO.,800%2Dmegawatt%20project%20in%202021.

[10]Gasparatos, A., Ahmed, A., & Voigt, C. (2021). Facilitating policy responses for renewable energy and biodiversity. Trends in Ecology & Evolution36(5), 377-380.

2 thoughts on “Green vs Green: Conflict Between Renewable Energy and Biodiversity Loss

  1. This struck a particular nerve with me, as I have watched a prairie-type area near my home become covered in solar panels. While this is good from the perspective of renewable energy, it has raised migration concerns, particularly about the elk population that lives in the area. My favorite running trail is adjacent to where the solar panels have been installed, and I have noticed a change in the animal activity in the area. There used to be a lot of deer and elk that would travel through, however, now I mostly notice smaller creatures. I see far fewer deer and elk when I am on my runs. This is not necessarily an issue in my community because fortunately for these animals, there is much other open space to roam. However, I think that this would be a more pressing issue in areas where the only available space for solar is also the only open space for animals.

    I like your assessment of potential policy solutions, particularly the comprehensive assessment of biodiversity impacts. I think that this would help all parties involved choose a path with less biodiversity impact when developing solar energy sites.

  2. This is an incredibly informative breakdown of the challenges surrounding the rise of renewable energy. Your thorough assessment of conservationist concerns, particularly those relating habitat disturbance and biodiversity, adds dimension to the standard narrative around renewable energy projects. The Vineyard Wind instance not only shows the practical problems, but also emphasizes the significance of balancing ecological integrity with the transition to sustainable energy sources. Your proposals for adding biodiversity impacts into the siting and approval processes are a clever way to align these critical environmental concerns. Great read!

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