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Solar power installation is booming in Florida, which is good news for the shift from planet-heating fossil fuel energy to clean, renewable power.
But the transition to a more climate-friendly future could have unforeseen consequences for some wildlife species in the state, particularly the endangered Florida panther.
A new study, from researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), found that increased installation of utility-scale, solar energy (USSE) facilities is cutting through so-called “wildlife corridors” – areas free from manmade obstacles where the panthers roam, live and breed.
The endangered panther was once found across the southeast but now the only breeding population is restricted to a little more than 5 per cent of its historic range, in the swamplands of South Florida.
Only 120 to 130 Florida panthers remain in the wild, according to the National Wildlife Federation, with the subspecies so critically endangered that it is “vulnerable to just about every major threat” including habitat loss from construction and mercury pollution.
The big cats roam far, with males requiring about 200 square miles of range. Their survival relies on being able to travel from protected area to protected area via wildlife corridors.
Meanwhile, electric companies’ solar farms in the nation’s “Sunshine State” are projected to boom in the next decade, increasing capacity from 1,743 to 12,537 megawatts.
The FAU study is the first of its kind to document the impacts of major solar projects on a large carnivore species.
“Our study suggests that in the drive to shift our energy production to carbon neutral sources, while maintaining maximum profitability, wildlife outside human dominated landscapes with large ranges and dispersal potentials may be pushed into less favorable habitat or cut off completely from available habitat by degradation of corridors,” said Olena V Leskova, senior author and a PhD student in FAU’s Department of Geosciences, and a geographer/geospatial scientist at the South Florida Water Management District.
The study compared 45 installed or planned USSE facilities in the Florida peninsula, totaling around 27,688 acres, with panther habitats.
The results revealed that solar facilities were most often built on grasslands and pastures (45.7 per cent) followed by agricultural lands (34.9 percent), and forest (13.2 percent).
The research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, discovered that the greatest impacts to panthers occur when solar farms are located in their major corridors, and where no alternative routes exist.
In all, researchers identified nine solar farms located in areas which connect panthers’ breeding grounds and other areas key to their survival.
A further 26 facilities were located between core areas but where there were fewer panthers.
An additional problem was posed by the fact that most of the large solar installations in the study were surrounded by six-foot, chain-link fences, topped with barbed wire. The barriers can not only disrupt panthers’ migration routes but cause death or injury to the big cats.
The research discovered that clusters of solar farms can cause even more problems for panthers, by creating a continuous blockade through wildlife corridors. Clustering solar facilities is viewed as beneficial by energy companies as it decreases the amount of new infrastructure and maintenance that’s needed.
The researchers hope that the study will highlight the need to protect and maintain connectivity across the landscape during solar facility planning.
Impacts are also expected on other endangered and protected species in Florida, the researchers noted, such as gopher tortoises, eastern indigo snakes, Florida scrub jay, Florida burrowing owls, and Florida black bears.