Study first to document the effects of utility-scale solar installations on a large carnivore – ScienceDaily

Florida, the “Sunshine State,” is rapidly increasing utility-scale solar (USSE) installations to combat carbon emissions and climate change. However, the expansion of renewable energy may come with environmental trade-offs. Reducing the carbon footprint of the energy industry is hampering the footprint of large carnivorous claws.

Once spread throughout the southeastern United States, the only breeding population of the critically endangered Florida tiger (Concolor by Puma Korean) to just over 5 percent of its historical range in southern Florida. Florida cheetahs need corridors to disperse, which often happens when they leave their maternal group to go out on their own. Furthermore, they have very large home ranges – males need about 200 square miles, and their survival depends on their ability to move from protected area to protected area via wildlife corridors.

Researchers from Florida Atlantic University conducted the first study documenting the effect of USSE facilities on habitat suitability and the large-scale connectivity of suitable habitat for any large carnivorous animal. The study included the Florida Peninsula, excluding the Panhandle, and focused on 45 installed or planned USSE facilities equal to approximately 27,688 acres—the average USSE plant area was approximately 615 acres.

The researchers compared the suitability of Florida tiger habitat and connectivity before and after the installation of USSE facilities within the Florida Peninsula using random forest to predict the probability of being in one-square-kilometre cells and circle theory to predict the probability of movement between suitable habitat areas. They also used tiger radiotelemetry data collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) from February 1981 to June 2020 to validate the projected passes.

The results of the study published in Journal of Applied Ecology It showed that most often, solar facilities were installed on grasslands and pastures (45.7 percent of the total area was replaced by solar facilities), and agricultural land (34.9 percent). Forests ranked third in the land cover category most affected (13.2 percent). The results indicate a significant bias in locating USSE facilities within rural and undeveloped land, which may provide sufficient contact for Florida tigers to roam, live and breed.

The largest impacts occurred when utilities were located within a projected main corridor, where the current density was much greater than in the surrounding areas, and where there are no alternative main corridors. The researchers found nine facilities located within major corridors that connect the current breeding habitat and other core areas with potential to support the Florida panther population. They found an additional 26 facilities located in rural areas among core areas with relatively weaker current density compared to the main corridors, but likely supported by dispersal. Of the remaining facilities in this study, four were within or immediately adjacent to the core regions, and only six were facilities without a possible minimal expected effect on core or conductive regions.

“Our study suggests that in the quest to shift our energy production to carbon-neutral sources, while still maintaining maximum profitability, wildlife may be pushed out of human-dominated landscapes with large ranges and dispersal potential into a less suitable habitat or be cut out entirely. About the habitats available by degradation said Olena V. Leskova, MS, senior author, Ph.D., student in the FAU Department of Earth Sciences at Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and geographer/geographer in the South Florida Water Management District.

Most of the USSE facilities in this study are surrounded by 6-foot chain link fences, topped with barbed wire, which are presumed to cause scattering redirection. Some facilities use 6-foot wilderness fences with wide mesh or short spans of 4-foot split rail fences with wide mesh and some have double fences. The environmental costs of fencing wildlife include disrupting their migration routes, segmenting their habitats, limiting their range and evolutionary potential, and causing, directly or indirectly, injury or death.

“Formal protection and enhancement of the remaining walkways between landscape-wide core areas will likely mitigate or mitigate impacts already evident after the installation of some facilities, and may prevent expected impacts with additional facilities planned,” said Scott Marquith, PhD, co-author and professor at Department of Earth Sciences at FAU. “Restoring corridors of dispersal and gene flow throughout the Florida peninsula is critical for the Florida tiger, their prey, and ancillary species benefiting from the Florida connected ecosystem. This in turn will benefit biodiversity and species resilience at a landscape scale.”

Florida’s solar power is expected to grow over 10 years from 1,743 to 12,537 megawatts, with major electric companies planning major expansions. The researchers note that USSE facilities installed in groups may create greater communication disturbance than individual facilities, especially when installed as a semi-continuous barrier perpendicular to the driveway. The practice of such gathering facilities is attractive to energy companies because it reduces the amount of supporting infrastructure such as roads and transmission lines, and also enhances maintenance activities.

“We believe that regulatory and licensing agencies, and the electric companies themselves, should begin to take landscape connectivity into account when planning and permitting USSE facility site locations,” Leskova said.

Impacts on other endangered and protected Florida wildlife species are expected, including those with significant spatial and/or specific habitat requirements, such as gopher turtles, eastern Nile snakes, Florida scrub, Florida burrowing owls, and Florida black bears. .

“Research that includes additional affected species will fill gaps in environmental protection policy regarding both the local and regional impacts of utility-scale solar facilities,” Markwith said.

The study’s co-author is Robert Frakes, PhD, an ecologist who specializes in modeling and preserving tiger habitats.

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