Friday, April 19, 2024

Bats are avoiding solar sites – The Applied Ecologist

EcologyBats are avoiding solar sites – The Applied Ecologist

Shortlisted for the 2023 Southwood Prize

Elizabeth Tinsley talks us through how she and colleagues conducted a paired study at 19 ground-mounted solar PV developments in southwest England. Through the use of static detectors to record bat echolocation calls and the development of generalised linear mixed-effect models, it was determined that ground-mounted solar photovoltaic developments have a significant negative effect on bat activity.

Bats and solar farms

Although solar farms are one of the fastest growing sources of renewable energy worldwide, the impacts of these developments on biodiversity have received little attention. In our shortlisted paper, we present pioneering analysis of the effect of ground-mounted solar photo voltaic (PV) developments (solar farms) on bats.

Illustration showing effect of solar farming on bat activity © Elizabeth Tinsley

Data collection

The experimental set up for the study. Here, equipment is placed in the centre of a field with solar panels © Elizabeth Tinsley

I set up bat static monitoring equipment in a solar farm field, and a matched field without solar panels (control site).  Fields were matched in size, land use, and boundary feature (e.g. hedge, fence, stream) and a bat detector was placed in the middle and edge of both fields, totalling four recording locations, repeated across 19 separate sites. Field boundaries were selected as they are important navigation features for bats.

Echolocation call sequences at recording points were then analysed to identify the bat species and number of bat passes. The activity levels of Common Pipistrelle, Noctule, Myotis species, Serotine, Soprano pipistrelle and Long-eared bat species were substantially lower at solar farm sites, compared to the paired control sites.

Our findings

Solar farms reduce bat activity at field centres and along their boundaries compared with matched control fields, and the impacts are species-specific.  The broader implications of this research are that these potential negative impacts need attention under Environmental Impact Assessments, and that mitigation methods require development.

Common Pipistrelle © Daniel Whitby

So far our research has received attention from statutory bodies, and we are hopeful that our findings will continue to be of interest to policy makers, planners, ecological consultants and scientists working on optimising trade-offs between the development of renewable energy and biodiversity loss.

Next steps

The next steps of this research are to understand the mechanisms as to why bat activity is reduced at solar sites, to ensure appropriate mitigation can be designed.  We are currently drafting a paper determining the implications of solar panels on invertebrate abundance and species richness, as well as the siting of solar sites within the ecological landscape, to understand if these factors may cause the identified changes in bat activity.

About the author

I have had an interest in natural world from a young age which, after a BSc in Ecology and MSc in Environmental Consultancy, led me into a career as a Ecological Consultant.  Whilst working in this role I identified that there was very little understanding of how biodiversity interacts with solar panels, and particularly how bats were affected by ground-mounted solar PV.

The author © Elizabeth Tinsley

Following contact with Gareth Jones at the University of Bristol I embarked on a ‘part-time’ PhD, alongside full-time employment, visiting solar sites across the south-west of England to plug the data gap.

I am looking forward to finalising my PhD in 2024, and continuing to work in my role as a Technical Director for Biodiversity.  My career has allowed me to bridge gaps between ecological science and management by practitioners. I am keen to use my network from academia as well as corporate contacts to guide how we approach the energy crisis in a way that ensures biodiversity can thrive, alongside the need for a transition to renewables.

Read the full article “Renewable energies and biodiversity: Impact of ground-mounted solar photovoltaic sites on bat activity” in Journal of Applied Ecology.

Find the other early career researchers and their articles that have been shortlisted for the 2023 Southwood Prize here!

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