Since 2009, the Department of the Navy (DON) has been decisively procuring renewable energy to increase energy security and diversify resources. From the execution of solar farms on bases, to the purchasing of the largest amount of renewable energy by a Federal entity to-date, it’s clear the DON is committed to this important endeavor.
Building renewable energy enhances the DON’s energy security and operational capability, but that doesn’t mean other considerations aren’t taken into account. A significant, but little-known, consideration that all projects face is their potential impact on local habitats and species.
When solar panels are installed on-base they can’t just be built anywhere. We conduct careful research and investigation into the potential impacts of the project to ensure the construction does not negatively impact the surrounding environment. Here are a few examples of how the Navy considers the environment when building these projects:
- Realizing that not all project sites are created equal.
When considering potential project sites for solar farms, the first step is for the DON to identify potential environmental constraints in that area. The DON coordinates with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to determine if any endangered species are present, and with the Army Corps of Engineers to determine if any sensitive habitats are contained in the potential project site (e.g., wetlands, which contain a high degree of biodiversity).
If the habitat is determined to be too sensitive, or endangered species are present, the DON works to find another site, which we call “avoidance.” However, if avoidance is not possible and there is a reasonable way to build around the constraints, the DON explores two other options– minimization, a process which involves some impact to the environment, but during which every effort is taken to minimize that impact, or mitigation, which are situations in which the DON can’t avoid impact, so we give back to the resource in a way that matches the original impact and balances out the effect. To-date the DON has not had to explore mitigation since it has been able to successfully minimize or avoid impacts to the environment.
- Keeping in mind that a creature’s a creature, no matter how small.
These are fairy shrimp. They’re federally listed as threatened and, though small, they are important to their ecosystems as food for larger animals. You may be wondering why aquatic organisms matter when considering potential project sites for a land-based solar farm, and the answer comes from the fairy shrimp’s fascinating reproduction process. During the winter, when dry depressions (vernal pools) have filled up with water, fairy shrimp hatch, mature over the course of several weeks, and then lay eggs in the pools. When the pools dry up, the eggs survive the dry season on land, and then hatch when the rain comes again, essentially being activated by water. Incredibly resilient, these eggs have the potential to last for more than 10 years without being activated!
In Southern California, where the DON is pursuing solar farms, and where there are fairy shrimp populations, we specifically avoid potential project sites that contain vernal pools, so as not to impact the lifecycle of these amazing creatures.
3. Being mindful of Fantastic Mr. Fox and his friends.
Earlier this year, the DON considered building a solar facility in a part of California where kit foxes are prevalent. To better understand our potential impact on this protected species, we conducted an evaluation to determine the project‘s effect on kit foxes. We determined that the project site contained many kit fox dens, so, for this and other reasons, the DON chose to avoid this area as a project site. This left the kit foxes to carry on with their lives, unperturbed, and probably scheming to outsmart some farmers.
4. Protecting nature’s construction worker: the gopher tortoise.
The gopher tortoise is native to the Southeastern United States, and is both threatened and a keystone species, since it digs burrows that provide shelter for more than 360 other animal species, such as the burrowing owl, gopher frog, Florida mouse, and more.
The DON is finalizing an agreement to construct a solar farm at NAS Whiting Field in Florida where a significant population of the remaining gopher tortoises resides. When determining the best location to build the solar farm, the DON conducted surveys to identify gopher tortoise burrows that would be present within construction areas.
By consulting with the USFWS, the DON was able to minimize impacts by avoiding areas significant to the tortoises’ habitat, and where the burrows could not be avoided, by relocating the tortoises to adjacent areas. This is a method approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and has proven to be successful. In short, we made sure that nature’s construction workers were unharmed as a result of our projects so they could continue to do their important work.
5. Consulting the experts: the Installation Resource Managers.
Every DON Installation has a natural and cultural resource manager whose job is to be knowledgeable about the surrounding area’s environment and to take charge of local conservation. The DON consults with these representatives before exploring potential project sites, and solicits their expertise when pre-screening project sites that could potentially disturb habitats and species.
In the event that trees need to be cut down to accommodate a solar farm, the capital value of the timber is deposited into the Navy’s forestry account. This account provides funds for staffing and managing forestry work such as timber restoration and enhancement. These programs improve the project area to the benefit of the trees and the other biological organisms that utilize the habitat. We also take special care to maintain a robust timber buffer as a visual screen between the project site and the community; many people barely even notice the solar farm is there!
Renewable energy plays a key role in the DON’s mission to achieve energy security. It diversifies our power portfolio, can help stabilize our energy costs, and increases our resiliency and operational capability. All of this will ultimately make us better warfighters; however, we recognize that we share this planet and that we cannot pursue an initiative that only benefits the DON without taking the larger picture into account.
As protectors of our country, we have the responsibility to act as stewards of the environment, and to ensure that we avoid negative impacts to other organisms, wherever possible. For that reason, as we execute these mission-critical renewable energy projects we make sure to do so in a way that is environmentally responsible.