The siting of solar power projects, particularly the massive photovoltaic and concentrating solar power facilities blooming in the West, draws intense scrutiny from environmental organizations. Last year, the Calico solar project was scratched in large part due to opposition from environmentalists concerned about wildlife habitats. But even more modest projects can find themselves on uncertain ground.
In December, the Western Governors Association (WGA) launched its Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT). The free online resource is designed to help energy developers and others view the areas where wildlife live and roam in the West. The WGA says the tool can be valuable in preventing delays in renewable energy and other projects across 16 states.
The map and data show crucial – as opposed to critical – habitats, so it is not a regulatory resource. Crucial habitats, the WGA explains, are places that are likely to provide natural resources to wildlife. Critical habitats, as defined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are areas believed to be essential to threatened species' conservation. Planners can use CHAT to get a preliminary idea of whether there might be any issues with wildlife before the developer starts to narrow site selection options.
Carlee Brown, WGA policy advisor, says the tool gives developers a high-level vantage point to start a site selection process.
‘CHAT will provide a first stop whenever someone is siting a project or doing preliminary stages,’ Brown says. ‘If they are an organization that crosses state boundaries, or they have a big project like a pipeline, they want to have a tool.’
CHAT shows the areas where terrestrial and aquatic species of concern live, areas of vegetation that provide food for these animals, and the corridors in which the wildlife move. The map is shaded to show six different levels of ‘crucial habitat rank.’ Dark blue – or Category 1 – is the most crucial, and the lightest blue – Category 6 – is the least crucial.
A planner can select a state, see that there are several dark blue areas, then click on the information to find if the rank is related to preserving species whose numbers are in decline, or if the area features ‘species of economic and recreational importance.’
The information was supplied by the states' fish and wildlife departments, so the goal is not only conservation. The states also want to preserve areas that are important habitats for game, such as deer and elk.
‘It's not just threatened and endangered but also recreational, and connectivity between important habitat areas,’ Brown explains. ‘There are a lot of considerations that wildlife managers have, and hunting and fishing is an important driver for a lot of local economies and the western ethic.’
Renewable energy is also important in these states, and the map could help solar developers gather information for planning, says Pam Eaton, senior advisor for renewable energy for The Wilderness Society in Denver. Eaton served as the co-chair of the Environment and Lands work group for the WGA's western renewable energy zones and worked closely with the WGA in the development of CHAT.
‘I think it should be one of the tools that they are using when they are considering projects and areas to get a sense where they might run into risks or where opportunities might be greater for less conflict,’ she says.
According to Eaton, CHAT is different from other online tools. ‘The innovation here is it reflects how the states view the quality and the nature of the habitats that are in a place,’ she says. ‘Often you can get information that a species is there, but for a developer, it's hard to tell whether it matter that it's there.’
Some states have their own CHAT, which Web visitors can access for more information. Among WGA's 19 member states, Hawaii, North Dakota and Texas did not participate in CHAT. The states that did participate will have opportunities to update their information twice a year.
Eaton says CHAT will be a useful tool for solar. ‘I think renewable energy developers are ahead of others in the energy industry in trying to address these issues,’ she says. ‘The industry should be credited with trying to get ahead of these issues.’
While it is usually wind and transmission towers that get most of the attention concerning wildlife corridors and habitats, Eaton points out that solar will have to pay attention to this as concentrated solar, and its towers, become more prevalent.
‘This kind of tool reveals those things that are hard to see,’ Eaton says. ‘It will reduce the conflicts as we try to build out renewable energy.’
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.