Environmentalists say new farm is bad for the birds

SolUnesco’s solar farm in Albemarle will be similar to Dominion’s in Louisa, which produces enough energy to power 5,000 homes a year. Courtesy Dominion SolUnesco’s solar farm in Albemarle will be similar to Dominion’s in Louisa, which produces enough energy to power 5,000 homes a year. Courtesy Dominion

Clean energy is on the rise, and Reston-based group SolUnesco is planning to build a 70-acre solar farm in Albemarle County, which would be the first of its kind in the area. One local nature enthusiast, however, says these “so-called green energy sources” aren’t as harmless to the environment as many people think.

“Although green power sources may emit fewer or no carbon emissions as compared to coal, their use, when employed on a large scale, results in a variety of wildlife losses,” says nature writer Marlene Condon. “The deployment of acres and acres of solar panel arrays destroys habitat for the variety of wildlife they displace.”

In some instances, the solar array itself has caused the death of certain avian species. Birds can mistake a reflective solar facility for a body of water and plunge into it, she says. A bird’s feathers can also ignite after flying through a concentrated beam of sunlight.

Condon points to a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory investigation in which scientists found that 233 birds recovered from three desert solar power plants in California had been “fatally singed, broken or otherwise fatally crippled by the facilities.”

“No one knows just how many birds are being killed by the growing numbers of these facilities, but the numbers are high enough that people should be concerned,” Condon says. She suggests placing large solar systems only in developed areas, such as on the rooftops of businesses or on the properties of derelict malls or parking lots.

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved a zoning amendment in June that will allow solar farms in the county’s rural areas. SolUnesco’s system, if approved, will generate 11 megawatts of energy—or enough to power about 2,000 homes a year. It’s planned for the intersection of the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and Buck Island Road.

Seth Maughan, SolUnesco’s director of projects, says the state’s Department of Environmental Quality will evaluate any potential environmental damage before approving the project. As for a bird mistaking a solar farm for a body of water, he’s “never heard that at all.”

Though he is aware that systems like his company’s may cause wildlife habitat loss, Maughan stresses that the objective of a solar farm is to benefit the environment.

In neighboring Louisa County, Dominion Energy has constructed a $44 million Whitehouse solar facility, where 84,000 panels on a 230-acre farm produce about 20 megawatts a year. That’s enough to power 5,000 homes, according to Dominion spokesperson Daisy Pridgen.

She says her crew hasn’t documented any “avian mortalities” at any of their solar sites, which are comprised of photovoltaic solar arrays that don’t use a concentrated solar design like some located in the west where the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory investigated the dead birds. SolUnesco’s design will also be photovoltaic.

And at the Ivy Material Utilization Center—the former Ivy Landfill—the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority’s board of directors announced June 28 the signing of a land lease to install a solar array on 10 to 14 acres of the property. Though this two-megawatt system is more than five times smaller than SolUnesco’s, RSWA reps say it should still produce enough energy to power about 1,000 homes a year.

“Economically and environmentally, this project makes sense,” says Bill Mawyer, RSWA’s executive director. The solar panels are expected to rake in $10,000 a year in revenue over the 25-year span of the lease. Construction is scheduled for next summer.

Though solar projects are gaining traction in Virginia, Condon says it would be smart to pump the brakes.

“When all’s said and done, we are not going to survive if we lose too much wildlife, a situation that we are moving toward at breakneck speed,” Condon says. “Our lives depend upon the proper functioning of the environment, and the proper functioning of the environment depends totally upon the jobs performed by wildlife for our benefit.”

Says Condon, “It’s high time people wake up to this truism and start taking the needs of wildlife into account.”

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