So­lar farms not quite Utopia, new im­pact study finds

The Herald (South Africa) - - NEWS - Tanya Far­ber

IMAG­INE a field in the mid­dle of nowhere cov­ered in he­liostats – the so­lar pan­els that form a “farm” on which en­ergy is har­vested.

Like ro­botic sun­flow­ers‚ they have lit­tle mir­rors that turn through­out the day to catch the sun.

As the global fight against fos­sil fu­els rages on‚ these farms seem Utopian – un­til an im­age of wa­ter loss‚ birds crash­ing into pan­els and dust fly­ing around emerges.

For the first time‚ a group of South African sci­en­tists has started look­ing at the col­lec­tive im­pact that could re­sult when many such farms spring up in an area.

“We ac­knowl­edge the huge ben­e­fits of wind and so­lar power‚ but we need to also un­der­stand the new forms of im­pact they could have‚” Pro­fes­sor Karen Esler said.

She su­per­vised the re­search, pub­lished in the SA Jour­nal of Sci­ence.

“Mainly of con­cern are loss of habi­tat‚ wa­ter loss‚ dust and the im­pact on bird life. Pho­to­voltaic so­lar farms are be­ing set up in the Ka­roo‚ and many more are planned.

Lead re­searcher Jus­tine Rud­man‚ of the Uni­ver­sity of Stel­len­bosch‚ looked at so­lar-power de­vel­op­ments in two arid re­gions of South Africa – the Nama-Ka­roo and the Sa­vanna – and in­ter­viewed ex­perts for what the big­ger pic­ture could look like.

En­vi­ron­ment im­pact as­sess­ments gen­er­ally fo­cus on the af­fect of an in­di­vid­ual project.

“The foot­prints of those de­vel­op­ments are rel­a­tively small, but col­lec­tively‚ the im­pact could be greater than we re­alise,” Esler said.

“Just like with frack­ing‚ you can do as­sess­ments on dif­fer­ent sites‚ but one also needs to look at the land­scape as a whole.”

Birds‚ for ex­am­ple‚ suf­fered ma­jor col­li­sion im­pact – with fur­ther re­search be­ing done on this.

There was a vis­ual dust im­pact, and wa­ter loss was be­ing har­nessed, be­cause so­lar power needed to be near a wa­ter source.

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