1. What’s the difference between “renewable” and “sustainable” energy?
You might have heard of “renewable energy”, which is energy from sources that naturally replenish themselves within human lifetimes. Examples of this are solar power, wind power and tidal power.
“Sustainable energy” goes one important step further. Not only do sustainable energy sources need to be replenished in a reasonable timeframe, but the energy needs to be generated and used in a way that has minimal collateral effects, especially environmental effects. In other words, it is energy we can use today without damaging future generations or compromising their ability to meet their own needs.
Sustainable energy uses renewable energy sources like sun and wind. But even these renewable sources can damage the environment, so not all renewable energy is truly sustainable.
2. What’s wrong with “traditional” energy supplies?
Traditional energy supplies tend to rely on burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas. There are two big problems with this.
Firstly, there is a limited supply of these fuels – they are not “renewable”.
Secondly, burning these fuels releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases which are a major cause of global warming, leading to lots of problems like storms, floods, droughts and an increase in invasive species. 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy supplies.
This is why alternative, sustainable solutions have a major role to play in reducing climate change and all its associated problems.
3. What are the potential costs to wildlife of renewable energy?
The most common forms of renewable energy are solar power (from solar panels) and wind power (from wind turbines). When the energy is generated on a commercial scale the generation facilities are known as “farms”. Both types need large areas of land and sea to locate the panels or turbines, as well as other infrastructure such as cables to link to the national grid.
Solar farms can be made of dozens of rows of panels, often covering an area of 20 hectares or more – that’s about the size of 20 rugby pitches. They are usually raised off the ground and angled to face the sun, leaving gaps between each row and space underneath the panels. These gaps mean there are significant areas that can be managed as species-rich meadows of great benefit to pollinators, which also allow breeding birds and migrating birds to shelter and feed. But new technologies mean solar panels can be designed with no gaps. This makes the most of surface area for gathering the energy of the sun but can impact hugely on wildlife.
Wind farms may be on land or at sea. Offshore wind farms are commonly thought to be less obtrusive but can consist of up to 300 turbines. Energy companies need to run cables from these turbines to shore (that’s up to 30km) then run them several more kilometres across the land to join the national grid. Putting these turbines and cables in place, and maintaining them, can cause permanent damage to important species and habitats both on land and at sea. In addition, the noise of constructing the turbines may cause significant harm to marine mammals. The ongoing operation of turbines can negatively affect bird migration, and recent evidence suggests the same is true for some species of bats.
4. So how can we make energy truly sustainable?
Well-planned energy systems can minimise their negative impacts on wildlife and can even have positive impacts. Energy companies should consider wildlife as soon as they start planning a new site or change to an existing site. Their approach should:
- Commit to ensuring overall positive outcomes for wildlife from the outset, aiming for a ‘net biodiversity gain’.
- Avoid sites that are designated for nature conservation.
- Identify potential negative impacts on wildlife and avoid these impacts wherever possible.
- When all possible options have negative impacts, seek the least environmentally damaging option.
- Recognise that there may be unknown impacts on wildlife that development needs to consider and mitigate, employing the ‘precautionary principle’.
- Achieve this by consulting experts and relevant stakeholders early on ecological aspects of sites and routes.
Fortunately, there are good examples of solar projects which have improved the wildlife value of land with careful management through grazing. There are also offshore wind farm projects that have avoided internationally protected marine habitats when planning cable routes.
5. How does Kent Wildlife Trust help?
Kent Wildlife Trust is committed to speaking up for nature. We want all development to be sustainable - avoiding damage to wildlife and supporting net gain for biodiversity where possible. To do this, we work extensively with planners, developers and decision-makers. We support the development of Local Plans, which are strategic plans developed by Local Authorities to set out how they will work in the future. We provide advice to developers to identify negative impacts on wildlife and advocate design that benefits wildlife. We review planning applications to ensure they comply with relevant legislation and best practice, offering recommendations and alternative options to Local Authority planning departments and the national Planning Inspectorate. And we campaign for local and national legislation to uphold environmental standards as well as holding developers to best practice. We do this to try to achieve better outcomes for nature.