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The number of large solar farms in Maine is increasing quickly, prompting some residents and conservation groups to worry about the development cutting deeper into forests. Dustproof Dust Cap
The groups emphasized that they support solar energy but don’t want it to disrupt vital habitats already threatened by climate change.
“It’s important to think of how we can facilitate the rapid build out of renewable energy in locations that are less impactful,” said Samantha Horn, the director of science at the Nature Conservancy in Maine.
Some developers, meanwhile, have chosen to minimize environmental changes at their solar sites, showing creative ways others might accommodate vegetation and animals on solar farms.
The stakes for the siting of solar farms are increasing given Maine’s statutory target of 80 percent clean energy by 2030 and a recent rapid increase in solar development often requiring the clearing of many acres.
Last year, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection approved 37 permit applications for commercial-scale solar farms, according to department data compiled for the first time by the Bangor Daily News. That’s a 12-fold increase from 2018 when the department approved three applications. The data do not include residential solar panels.
So far this year, the state has approved 34 applications, while another 13 applications are either on hold or being processed.
Since 2018, available data show approved solar farms ranging from one to 926 acres, with the majority being within 20 to 45 acres. Of the permitted projects, 10 are described as being more than 100 acres.
But these figures are an undercount and based on incomplete data the BDN collected from the department, which did not include acreage information in its database for 51 out of 110 total sites approved between 2018 and 2022.
It’s not yet known how many solar projects require cutting of trees, but it’s clear that many have. Based on the incomplete dataset, developers for 19 sites estimated they would need to clear a combined total of about 696 acres.
That total does not include the number of acres being cleared by what will be Maine’s largest solar farm. Longroad Energy’s Three Corners Project, which is under construction in Benton, Clinton and Unity Township, estimates it will need to clear 690 acres of vegetation and trees for its solar panels. The entire site is 926 acres.
Maine has more than 17.5 million acres of forestland, which is vital for wildlife and capturing carbon dioxide, a gas that can trap heat that Earth would have otherwise radiated into space.
“Where you choose to put a site is important, given the options,” said Noah Charney, an assistant professor in the department of wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology at the University of Maine. “Then, how you manage the site can have a huge impact on what wildlife can exist there.”
Two companies, North Yarmouth-based Branch Renewable Energy and Boston-based BlueWave Solar, said they recognize the need to minimize environmental changes on their solar farms.
BlueWave Solar has set up most of its solar farms on already-cleared land, and five of the company’s 15 solar projects being developed in Maine are near forested areas, said Alan Robertson, the managing director of BlueWave Solar, which has developed solar farms across New England.
BlueWave Solar’s sites are modified to accommodate vegetation or species the company wants to conserve. They are dual use, which means in addition to generating solar power for the grid, the sites are designed to allow species to thrive, cattle to roam and sometimes even farming to continue, Robertson said.
In Massachusetts, where the company is headquartered, there are state incentives for dual uses of solar sites, but in Maine there are none. For dual use in Massachusetts, solar panels are required to be built higher, at a minimum height of 10 feet, and to be spaced apart.
On a solar farm in Massachusetts, BlueWave designed tall solar panels to accommodate grazing cattle. In Rockport, Maine, the company built solar panels in blueberry fields, where the crops are still produced and farmed around the arrays, Robertson said.
In Sanford, Robertson said his company realized there were black racer snakes, a protected species, on the solar site it was developing.
“We could have just paid some money and been on our merry way,” he said, but instead the company opted to find a way to conserve the species.
Black racer snakes require tree cover, sandy soils to climb into places where they are protected, and sunlight.
“We’re working on a habitat study, and, if the project moves forward, we hope to create woody debris piles within the array to help promote the proliferation of that species,” Robertson said.
“Words like deforestation are painful for me to hear, because it makes it sound like we’re destroying 20 acres, and that’s just not the case,” said Chris Byers, the owner of Branch Renewable Energy. The company has developed and provided consultation for 100 solar projects across Maine, he said.
On his sites, Byers looks for ways to conserve a new or existing habitat in the fields, between solar arrays. In a meadow habitat, the company lets grass grow out underneath the solar panels to maintain an environment for critters and birds.
“You’ll see birds thriving and nesting around the solar panels and landing on them,” he said.
Charney, with the University of Maine, argues that it could also be less costly for developers to manage an existing habitat, instead of paying compensation fees. The state can require a company to do some type of conservation work either on or off site, when natural resources or important species are affected, or pay a compensation fee.
“Mowing less frequently, like once a year where you let the meadow grow with potential native seed mixes” can attract native insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and help them maintain their habitat, Charney said. If the solar site is fenced, developers can allow passageways for small mammals to move through.
While solar development is necessary to meet climate goals, and solar companies can minimize the disturbance to vegetation and species, Charney, Byers and Robertson also agreed that clearing forestland to develop solar energy on a broad scale in Maine is inevitable.
Clearing parts of forested land produces what is called an edge habitat, or the transition from forest to meadow. Creating an edge habitat can change the climate within the forest and make it less suitable for more sensitive species such as birds and amphibians that inhabit the more interior parts of forests.
Cutting into a contiguous forest, or an old forest, can have a profound effect on the species that depend on interior forest ecosystems because the edges have more sunlight and warmer temperatures, Charney said. The edge effects can extend more than 100 meters — roughly the length of a football field.
As the climate warms, some species will need to shift to cooler places. Eliza Donoghue, the director of advocacy and a staff attorney at Maine Audubon, a wildlife conservation organization, emphasized that holding onto large forest blocks to allow species to pass through is important for habitat connectivity and carbon sequestration.
“Just because you’re following the laws and regulations doesn’t mean that these projects don’t have an impact,” Donoghue said.
In much of Maine, however, the forests are already logged and have existing edge habitats.
“We’re typically cutting down something that was cut not that long ago and is going through the process of succession anyway,” Charney said. For this reason, the environmental effects are site dependent and vary.
Robertson believes the sites that are developed can eventually return to forestland.
“We have to decommission the systems when we’re gone,” Robertson said. “So the sites we use can still be returned to forestland over time, after we vacate.”
Do you have questions or observations about solar farms near you? Please email Mehr Sher at email@example.com.
Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.
Speaker Surround Rubber Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers. More by Mehr Sher