How Does Solar Energy Interact with Wildlife and the Environment?

As a renewable source of power, solar energy has an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change, which is critical to protecting humans, wildlife, and ecosystems. Solar energy can also improve air quality, reduce water use from energy production, and provide ecosystem services for host communities through carbon sequestration, pollination, and ground and stormwater management. Because ground-mounted photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) installations require the use of land, sites need to be selected, designed, and managed to minimize impacts to local wildlife, wildlife habitat, and soil and water resources. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) supports research to better understand how solar energy installations, wildlife, and ecosystems interact and to identify strategies that maximize benefits to the local environment and host communities.

Why is This Research Topic Important?

DOE’s Solar Futures Study presents various scenarios for solar energy deployment that could help the United States achieve a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035. According to the study, solar energy development could require as much as 5.7 million acres of land, which is about 0.3% of the contiguous U.S., by 2035. As deployment of solar energy projects continues to increase, having a better understanding of how solar energy infrastructure can impact wildlife and the surrounding environment will help in developing strategies and technologies that can avoid or minimize adverse impacts and maximize benefits.

During the siting and permitting of solar projects, solar developers typically evaluate multiple sites, site designs, and operation strategies. They assess the environmental impacts of their projects by complying with the relevant federal, state, and local laws; soliciting input from regulators; and performing impact assessments and mitigation. Solar developers, regulators, host communities, and other stakeholders have an interest in identifying strategies and tools that both improve the siting and permitting process and ensure healthy surrounding ecosystems. By increasing the number of resources and field-proven strategies available to stakeholders, SETO is improving decision-making and reducing the soft costs, or non-hardware costs, of solar development while balancing impacts to the natural environment.

SETO Research on Solar Energy, Wildlife, and the Environment 

SETO-funded research projects are led by collaborative groups of stakeholders, which may include representatives from the solar industry, communities hosting solar, state and local governments, universities, environmental and conservation non-profits, and the agriculture industry. Through technical assistance programs, SETO also encourages information sharing among stakeholders on the latest tools and methodologies that allow practitioners to deploy solar in an environmentally responsible way. 

SETO research on wildlife and the environment includes a strategic focus on equity and environmental justice principles. SETO recognizes that improving conservation outcomes from large-scale solar development will ensure that natural resources, such as wildlife, can be enjoyed by all communities in the future. Maximizing ecosystem services from solar projects can improve the livelihood of host communities. Research projects engage early and often with stakeholders to align research objectives with the values and needs of underserved communities, implement inclusive hiring practices to ensure diversity within the research teams, and perform educational outreach to encourage participation from underrepresented students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

Research areas of focus:

Wildlife-Solar Interactions 
Stormwater Runoff and Water Quality
Soil Health
  • Monitoring soil conditions and grassland ecosystem health at solar facilities co-located with pasture-based cattle grazing.
  • Quantifying soil health and microclimatic conditions for a range of crops under various solar array designs.

Search the Solar Energy Research Database to learn more about individual SETO-funded projects.

Additional Resources

  • Large-Scale Solar Siting – Background information and frequently asked questions regarding large-scale solar siting practices.
  • Solar Impacts on Wildlife and Ecosystems Request for Information (RFI) Summary – A summary of responses received to an RFI executed by SETO in 2021 on solar energy’s interactions with wildlife and ecosystems.
  • Avian-Solar Multi-Agency Collaborative Working Group – A collaborative working group of federal and state agencies that was established to promote better understanding of impacts on avian species related to solar energy projects and associated infrastructure.
  • Avian Solar Working Group – A collaborative group of environmental organizations, academics, solar companies, and solar industry representatives that coordinate on scientific research to better understand how birds interact with solar facilities.
  • End-of-Life Management for Photovoltaics – Background information and an overview of SETO’s efforts to develop materials and designs that can make PV easier to recycle and less harmful to the environment at the end of life.
  • InSPIRE – The project, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, conducts field research across the United States to improve the environmental compatibility and mutual benefits of solar development with agriculture and native landscapes.
  • AgriSolar Clearinghouse – An information-sharing, relationship-building, public communications hub for agrivoltaics.

Learn more about soft costs research, other solar energy research in SETO, and current and former funding programs.