Solar power represents an important and rapidly expanding component of the renewable energy portfolio of the United States (Lovich and Ennen, 2011; Hernandez and others, 2014). Understanding the impacts of renewable energy development on wildlife is a priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in compliance with Department of Interior Order No. 3285 (U.S. Department of the Interior, 2009) to “develop best management practices for renewable energy and transmission projects on the public lands to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of renewable energy.” Recent studies examining effects of renewable energy development on mortality of migratory birds have primarily focused on wind energy (California Energy Commission and California Department of Fish and Game, 2007), and in 2012 the FWS published guidance for addressing wildlife conservation concerns at all stages of land-based wind energy development (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2012). As yet, no similar guidelines exist for solar development, and no published studies have directly addressed the methodology needed to accurately estimate mortality of birds and bats at solar facilities. In the absence of such guidelines, ad hoc methodologies applied to solar energy projects may lead to estimates of wildlife mortality rates that are insufficiently accurate and precise to meaningfully inform conversations regarding unintended consequences of this energy source and management decisions to mitigate impacts. Although significant advances in monitoring protocols for wind facilities have been made in recent years, there remains a need to provide consistent guidance and study design to quantify mortality of bats, and resident and migrating birds at solar power facilities (Walston and others, 2015).

In this document, we suggest methods for mortality monitoring at solar facilities that are based on current methods used at wind power facilities but adapted for the unique conditions encountered at solar facilities. In particular, unlike at wind-power facilities, the unimpeded access to almost all areas within the facilities, the typically flat terrain, and general absence of thick vegetation allow distance-sampling techniques (Buckland and others, 2001, 2004) to be exploited to advantage at industrial solar sites. These protocols build on the work of Nicolai and others (2011), and as our understanding and techniques for monitoring improve, the methods may be further modified to incorporate improvements in the future. We present case studies based on monitoring methods currently implemented at different utility-scale solar facilities to illustrate how distance-sampling techniques may improve overall detectability without substantially increasing costs. Every facility is unique, and the protocols presented may be adapted based on specific monitoring objectives and conditions at each site.

We provide guidance for designing monitoring programs whose objective it is to estimate the total number of bird and bat fatalities occurring at a facility over an extended period of time. We address spatial variation in causes of mortality, as well as potential sources of imperfect detection, for example, animals falling in or moving to unsearched areas, carcasses removed by predators, and carcasses missed by searchers. We suggest methods to estimate and account for each source of imperfect detection. This document focuses on monitoring design only and does not discuss approaches for estimating mortality from collected data. The development of statistically sound estimators relevant to the solar context is a current topic of research, although there are already strong foundations for estimation with distance-sampling methods in similar open, arid environments (Anderson and others, 2001; Freilich and others, 2005). Nonetheless, if protocols described in this document are followed, the resulting data will be adequate and sufficient for estimating mortality using newly formulated estimators.

  • Huso et al. 2016. Mortality monitoring design for utility-scale solar power facilities. U.S. Geological Survey. Open-File Report 2016-1087, 44 p. [PDF]

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