Towards a sustainable energy transition that ensures biodiversity conservation

The installation of solar photovoltaic plants radically modifies the ecosystem i
The installation of solar photovoltaic plants radically modifies the ecosystem in which they are located, but these changes are still little understood / Pixabay

A systematic review conducted by researchers from the Department of Ecology at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) reveals the paucity of studies on the impact of photovoltaic plants on biodiversity. This review, published in Conservation Letters, helps to better understand these effects, as well as to guide future research efforts that prioritize knowledge gaps.

Solar photovoltaics has become the fastest growing renewable energy in recent years, and could become the largest energy source by 2027, surpassing natural gas and coal. However, the information available on its environmental impacts is scarce and scattered.

Researchers from the Center for Biodiversity and Global Change Research (CIBC-UAM), together with colleagues from the Center for Forest Science and Technology of Catalonia (CTFC), all members of the Steppe Forward Chair, have conducted a systematic review of more than 2000 scientific articles. The results have identified the main impacts of photovoltaic plants on ecosystems and associated organisms, and proposes future lines of research to ensure that the energy transition occurs in a sustainable manner.

The review, recently published in the journal Conservation Letters, concludes that although Asia and Europe top the list of regions with the highest installed PV capacity (59% and 22%, respectively), most of the knowledge comes from North American studies (48% of the studies), especially from deserts (41%). In addition, most of the studies focused on habitat loss or alteration (53%), while other impacts, such as the consequences on the microclimate or the potential of agro-political systems, have hardly been addressed. Finally, 53% of the studies were conducted on a single PV installation, and pre-construction conditions were rarely recorded (8%).

Solar panels and biodiversity

The installation of solar panels affects the environment and biodiversity in many different ways. In arid areas, solar panels have a direct effect on the microclimate in hot seasons, generating new shaded areas where temperature and precipitation decrease, but also water losses, thus increasing soil moisture. They can also modify the chemical and physical composition of the substrate, but more research is needed to understand the mechanisms that explain these changes.

On the other hand, photovoltaic plants cause habitat alteration and loss at two spatial scales. At a landscape scale, they pose a physical barrier that disrupts animal movements, potentially triggering changes in their behavior and populations. At a smaller scale, as mentioned above, photovoltaic panels create new gradients of shade and humidity, ultimately affecting the plant community and altering the habitat of other animal groups, such as birds and arthropods, with consequences on their space use patterns. Finally, the review considers the impact of collision with photovoltaic plants that has been observed in aquatic organisms (mainly arthropods) that may confuse them with bodies of water, turning them into ecological traps, a phenomenon known as the "lake effect".

Recommendations for the future

In the installation of these photovoltaic panels, priority should be given to impact prevention, starting with proper land use planning. In addition, more research efforts should be devoted to understanding the mechanisms that explain the observed impacts in order to design effective mitigation measures.

The authors also stress the need to diversify the environmental contexts and ecosystem components studied in order to avoid biases in the information available. Similarly, robust methodological designs (known as BACI, Before-After-Control-Impact) and standardized protocols should be used to compare the information obtained. Finally, a greater effort is needed to evaluate the cumulative environmental impact, to avoid the installation of small fields in a dispersed manner generating a greater impact than large isolated installations.

The urgent call to combat climate change makes the advancement of photovoltaics inevitable. However, this development must be accompanied by good planning and adaptive management, ensuring that each new installation has comprehensive monitoring that contributes to the acquisition of new knowledge applicable to future installations. This will ensure that the energy transition does not put our ecosystems and biodiversity at risk.

Bibliographic reference:

Gˇmez-Catas¨s, J., Morales, M. B., Giralt, D., del Portillo, D. G., Manzano-Rubio, R., SolÚ-Bujalance, L., SardÓ-Palomera, F., Traba, J., & Bota, G. (2024). Solar photovoltaic energy development and biodiversity conservation: Current knowledge and research gaps. Conservation Letters, e13025. doi:10.1111/conl.13025.

More scientific culture in UAM Gazette