A New Tool to Balance Clean Energy and Wildlife Habitats in Maine

The siting tool can be a model for other states as they increase their renewable energy portfolios.

Wind turbines, International Appalachian Trail, Mars Hill, Aroostook County, Maine, USA
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

As we face the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, a new digital tool helps expand virtually carbon-free energy without sacrificing the wildlife habitats that support biodiversity. In Maine, the innovative Renewable Energy Siting Tool is a newly released interactive map that allows the state's municipalities and clean energy developers to identify optimal sites for solar and onshore wind projects while avoiding those with sensitive wildlife habitats or other constraints. The siting tool can be a model for other states as they increase their renewable energy portfolios and seek to weigh the opportunities and constraints on energy development.

Overlaying data on land-use, habitats, energy resources, administrative boundaries, proximity to electricity transmission lines, and other data, the GIS-based tool uses a stoplight model to identify sites suitable for development and sites to avoid. Brownfields like landfills or gravel pits are shaded green, wetland areas or rare species habitats are shaded red, while yellow-shaded areas indicate that closer examination of project impacts is necessary.

The tool was developed by Maine Audubon after Maine passed landmark legislation requiring that 80% of Maine’s electricity come from renewable resources by 2030 and 100% by 2050—among the most ambitious goals of any state in the country. The law opened up the state to new, larger clean energy projects—greatly expanding the allowable size of community solar farms, for example—but left municipalities and developers without a one-stop-shopping place for general planning purposes. 

Speaking to Treehugger, Sarah Haggerty, Maine Audubon's conservation biologist and the lead developer of the siting tool, observes that “we need this tool to help us combat climate change in a way that minimizes impact on our valuable natural resources.” Maine is the most forested state in the nation, and agriculture, natural resources, and nature tourism play important roles in its economy. Yet only 20% of the state's climate-resilient natural lands are protected from development, and the state is among the top five in losing its farmland to development, according to the American Farmland Trust. It makes little sense to develop clean energy projects at the expense of carbon-sequestering forests and farmland. 

What often stalls wind and solar projects is the siting process. Developers may announce an energy project, only to face regulatory obstacles or opposition from community members concerned about the loss of valuable farmland or the impact on wildlife. Every jurisdiction has its own approval process and requirements, which add to the time and cost of a renewable energy project. Stalled projects can discourage investors and slow the transition to renewable energy. While the siting tool is not intended to be used for regulatory purposes, it can help developers accelerate the deployment of clean energy by quickly identifying suitable land near accessible grid interconnections. 

Haggerty notes the tool was a collaborative process, with data and feedback provided by the Maine Farmland Trust, the Nature Conservancy, Maine's Department of Environmental Protection, state biologists, multiple municipalities, and renewable energy developers, as well as financial support from private donors and foundations.

Other states have developed siting guidelines for renewable energy. New Jersey, for example, has its own solar siting tool, which inspired Maine Audubon's wind-and-solar tool. Maine Audubon also plans on expanding the tool to make it even more useful for developers. “As more data comes in, we'll roll it into the app,” says Haggerty. “We also hope to expand it to help communities guide other types of development, not just renewable energy.” But, Haggerty stressed, always at the base of the datasets is habitat conservation. 

Clean energy development need not come at the expense of wildlife. What, after all, is the point of combating climate change to make the world a more livable place if we've destroyed all the places for wildlife to live?

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