How to reduce green energy’s impact on wildlife and ecosystems

Dec 17 - Guardian Web


Can renewables ever harm the environment? It seems a surprising idea; renewables are, after all, unequivocally better for the planet than fossil fuels. Yet it is increasingly clear that building renewable plants can also have an impact on local ecosystems and communities, on the habitats of endangered species, for instance, or the catch available for local fishermen.

This potential impact of green energy sources on ecosystems and biodiversity is widely overlooked, according to researchers at the Cambridge Conservation Initiative . “Urgent mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions is essential to reduce the impacts of climate change on biodiversity,” they say. “However, mitigation may also increase extinction risk through the unintended impacts of renewable energy developments, such as wind farms or biofuel.”

So how aware are the companies of the need to consider such impacts? More importantly, what can they do to support it?

“We know that biodiversity is one of the most important values by which companies can demonstrate their sustainability. In doing our business we become part of a community for a long time and since then we share the natural capital with the community. We rely on the same resources and this is why we need to take care of them,” says Vanessa Tedeschi , a senior adviser on environment and climate change at multinational energy company Enel .

Giovanni Tula , head of health, safety, environment and quality at Enel subsidiary Enel Green Power (EGP), says: “We are aware of the ecological issues that need addressing. For instance, we do take seriously into account the risk wind power plants pose to natural habitats, particularly birds and bats. We have worked with avifaunal specialists since the beginning of the wind project and, together with botanists and other specialists, we take synergistic actions to preserve local habitat.

“In each construction site, if needed, local flora and fauna will be relocated, avoiding the introduction of alien, non-native or invasive species. For example, at the Dominica wind site in Mexico , we have preserved almost 17,000 cacti.”

At new wind farms, Enel Green Power monitors birds and bats before the plants start operating, looking at the impact on protected species and on bird migration and also modelling potential collisions with new equipments. Also the abundance of food for wildlife is checked by monitoring the density and height of grass and shelter areas.

Enel Green Power works on culture and training too, says Tula: “In all its plants and construction sites, [EGP] performs biodiversity inductions for visitors, contractors and employees … so everyone is aware not to remove or disturb any plants or animals on site and whom to call when he/she spots a bird or, worst case, a snake!”

The impact of wind turbines on birds is just one of the areas being addressed and researched in 129 biodiversity projects Enel currently has in Europe , Latin America , the US and Russia , at an investment of €21m.

The projects are part of the group’s wider efforts to protect ecosystems, species and their habitats. Earlier this year, it announced its plan to meet the aims laid out by United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity for 2011-2020. Although biodiversity was already part of its environmental policy, Enel’s new plan sets out principles for all its subsidiaries so they can approach the issue with a shared vision and goals.

In his introduction, Enel’s chief executive Francesco Starace lays out the key elements of this plan:

  • Plan activities that can impact species and natural habitats to eliminate or minimise damage.
  • When there are unavoidable impacts, take measures to achieve “no net loss” of biodiversity and, where applicable, a positive net balance.
  • Perform, for every new installation, impact studies on biotypes and animal and vegetal species with aims including avoiding areas with the highest biodiversity.
  • Cooperate with local communities, academia or NGOs on biodiversity to develop projects for protecting and restoring ecosystems.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of any measures implemented.
  • Report regularly on biodiversity performance.
The broad aims of this plan demand actions way beyond simply gathering data and quantifying progress against key indicators. Doing good research and turning that research into action, Tedeschi suggests, is what any company that is serious about biodiversity must do. “Protecting biodiversity is not just about numbers and figures; the quality of the research is of more importance than the quantity. To become good biodiversity developers, we need to use this knowledge.”

Enel is turning the information it has gathered on biodiversity impacts into practical solutions. According to Tedeschi, this may mean, for example, insulating grids to prevent the electrocution of birds or installing boxes for nesting birds, especially when the sites are along paths taken by migratory species. It could also mean choosing to construct solar systems in abandoned caverns, exhausted landfills or polluted sites as a way of facilitating environmental recovery.

So what has the company achieved so far? Enel Green Power has been involved in several biodiversity initiatives. In areas surrounding the Stillwater plant in Utah , one of the most advanced examples of a renewable hybrid plant - combining geothermal and solar technologies - it built fences as a strategy to preventing illegal hunting of wildlife,

Elsewhere in the US, at the Lawrence hydropower plant in Massachusetts , EGP has established an Atlantic salmon restoration programme and a permanent concrete passageway for eels coming up the river. And at the Cove Fort geothermal plant in Utah , a joint project with government agencies aims to reduce the impact of steam pipes on the migration routes of local elks. At the Belmonte wind farm in Spain , thousands of the fruit trees that supply food to the rare brown bears of Cantabria were planted so the bears could continue to use the land.

Meanwhile, in Mexico , near the El Gallo hydropower plant, EGP has worked with local fishermen to help repopulate fish stocks in the plant’s basin.

The Mexico project illustrates an important aspect of EGP’s work on biodiversity, says Tedeschi, that creating partnerships with communities is a must as part of a systematic approach to renewable energy design. In the case of the fishermen near the El Gallo plant, this meant “listening to the local community, NGOs and academia [using] the Creating Shared Value (CSV) approach”, even though no research or studies had to be done as part of the planning permission for the plant.

Carlo Ferrara , recently appointed Enel’s head of sustainability in Colombia and formerly Enel’s head of environmental policies, adds that such projects often start off as a voluntary initiative by companies but become seen as essential by local planners. Even though there is no obligation to coordinate work on biodiversity with the local community, doing so adds credibility to planning and shows authorities that the company is committed to protecting and promoting biodiversity.

The benefits of taking a shared value approach go beyond corporate social responsibility. The fundamental aim is to create real benefits for the very communities where plants are being established, who would probably face negative impacts if local environmental impacts were ignored.

“We need to involve stakeholders. By engaging with communities from the beginning of a project, we can find sustainable solutions,” says Ferrara. In turn, the communities can feed back and help shape future developments, creating a virtuous and mutually beneficial cycle. “Our intention is to keep improving the quality of the projects we are working on, according to the input of the communities following international standards,” Ferrara concludes.

Content on this page is paid for and produced to a brief agreed with Enel , sponsor of the energy access hub on the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network .