Nature and renewable energy

How can solar and wind energy businesses step up the benefits they have for nature and biodiversity?

The future of energy

Fossil fuels – their extraction, transmission and use, and the greenhouse gas emissions they generate – are a major and significant threat to nature and biodiversity.

The global warming they drive threatens both the environment and its contributions to people – including our ability to help mitigate climate change [source].

As pressure grows to electrify areas that have traditionally been powered from fossil fuels – heating, for example, and transport – the need for a large expansion of electricity generation and transmission will increase. Moving forward, the electricity system will account for a growing proportion of the total energy system. As this happens, the electricity sector’s impacts on the environment will inevitably increase.

The UK energy sector is working hard to be one of the world’s cleanest and most innovative energy systems as the industry transitions towards net zero, by driving the delivery of clean energy – such as solar and wind, from which emissions are “amazingly low” – at an ever-increasing rate [source]. In the second quarter of 2021, renewables’ share of UK electricity generation was 37.3% [source].

It is not inevitable that decarbonising electricity through increased use of renewables will lead to negative impacts on the environment, though some individual projects will have some local impacts.

Overall and at a global level, the move to decarbonise the electricity system will lead to net positive environmental impacts through the avoidance and or mitigation of some of the adverse effects of climate change.

From development through to decommissioning, deploying renewable energy infrastructure will have local environmental impacts that need to be measured, mitigated, and controlled. Already, there are systems in place to address some of these issues through planning and other associated environmental legislation. Even so, there is more that can be done.

Solar, wind, and other low carbon renewable energy sources are essential for meeting the UK government’s net zero targets and avoiding climate change which, if undeterred, will have catastrophic impacts on all life on the planet. In this chapter, we hope to inform and inspire by showcasing an array of nature positive solutions that can be applied from source to transmission to distribution.

Our initial focus is on solar and wind, both onshore and offshore, but other renewable energy sources will be added in the future.

What's being done

Renewable electricity sources already play an important role in meeting the UK’s energy needs. They accounted for 36.24% of the UK electricity supply mix (and nuclear plant 17.42%) in 2020, while gas-fired turbines accounted for 37.04% and coal-fired power stations 1.96% [source].

Solar and wind – onshore and offshore – are priorities in the UK government’s 2020 white paper Powering Our Net Zero Future which details a target of 40 GW of energy for offshore wind by 2030, including 1 GW of floating wind (energy generated by turbines in deeper waters, where fixed-foundation turbines are not feasible) [source].

UK renewable energy capacity is set to double by 2026, when offshore wind will overtake onshore [source]. This is a significant and welcome development because as well as generating ‘clean energy’, large-scale deployment of renewable energy also offers climate change mitigation potential, fossil energy-saving potential, and ability to generate ‘green jobs’ [source].

As the solar and wind sectors grow, there is opportunity to lessen the limited environmental impacts that can occur when a project is deployed – constructed, operated, maintained, and decommissioned – and, through the design and planning of projects, influence the approaches among others.

All involved in generating, converting, and transporting solar and wind energy – as well as those providing the products and services on which they depend – share a responsibility to nature. This means managing operations in ways that protect and enhance biodiversity – championing nature positive approaches across the supply chain, for example – as well as building their nature positive impacts.

Solar and wind emissions are “amazingly low”.

Nature.com research into low-carbon power systems

The path forward

Robust regulatory bodies with environmental jurisdiction are ensuring that businesses adhere to stringent UK regulation, while industry bodies such as Solar Energy UK and Renewable UK are supporting their members to progress their sustainability agendas, with a heightened focus on biodiversity net gain.

Looking ahead, it will be important to build on work already being done to reduce and or mitigate the local impacts on the environment that some individual renewable energy projects have.

Already, as more renewable projects are deployed, we are seeing more efforts to measure and control the environmental impact they have through planning – such as through Environmental Impact Assessments, Habitat Management, and National Policy Statements.   

Moving forward, new and improved measurement and metrics will be needed. Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is a measurement gaining growing recognition across infrastructure projects, for example, but marine net gain does not yet exist. Offshore wind farm expansion is accelerating at pace but, the long-term impacts on marine wildlife are not yet known.

We will need to continue to build on our understanding of the long-term implications of climate change.

And while collaboration in evidence-based research on the environmental impact of renewable energy is increasing, we know that when it comes to reducing impacts across developments, more needs to be done.

It will also be important to address displacement of biodiversity impact – the impact for birds, mammals, and amphibians traceable along global supply chains This is a longstanding issue for the UK energy sector, and one to which renewables contribute, albeit to a far lesser extent than fossil fuels.

So, it will be essential to step up efforts to influence partners across all energy company supply chains – renewables, and beyond – to raise their sustainability targets and to improve their practices, especially as an increasing number of developments will depend on collaboration and joint ventures.

Closer to home, stepping up engagement with employees and customers in the work solar and wind companies do to help protect biodiversity and the environment will also be increasingly important.

Explore actions for nature

Perspective

Alastair Phillips-Davies
CEO, SSE plc

 

Net zero energy without costing the earth

There is no doubt that the greatest environmental challenge of our time is to remove human-made greenhouse gas emissions from our way of life.  It is impossible to be sustainable unless we confront climate change and stop emitting harmful greenhouse gases.  But, unless we take deliberate action, it is possible to tackle climate change in an environmentally unsustainable way. 

Impacts on nature need to be managed as part of an overall strategy to tackle the climate crisis and I am acutely aware of the current and unprecedented global decline in biodiversity – both at home and abroad. Water shortages, habitat destruction and, of course, climate change mean that ecosystems and the biodiversity they support are declining faster today than at any other time in human history. This impacts the food we eat, the medicines we provide, the water we drink and the resources we use.

Read more