University at Buffalo’s Solar Strand Generates Electricity and Ecosystem
Solar power is great: clean, quiet, and constantly getting more efficient as technology improves. I’m a big fan of wildlife too. I think every animal, from the smallest bunny to the largest elephant, deserves a safe place to live. Coincidentally, I found a place where solar power and wildlife exist together, and it is right in my Buffalo back yard (ok, so there are no elephants in Buffalo, but we do have bunnies).
In April 2013 the State University of New York at Buffalo (UB) brought its unique “solar strand” online. What’s referred to as The Strand, an installation of 3,200 freestanding solar panels, is positioned at one of the campus entrances. What I didn’t know before I visited one of the largest solar panel arrays in the state is that it doubles as a natural park. In fact, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) certified the solar strand area as wildlife habitat in the summer of 2013. This means the solar strand and surrounding property provide food, shelter (including suitable areas for wildlife to raise young), and water for a variety of local species.
The artist behind the design of UB’s solar installation is Walter Hood. He won an international competition for his design that mimics the appearance of a DNA strand after electrophoresis (pictured right). Hence the name: solar “strand.” Hood is a professor and former chair of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of Hood Design. Hood’s solar strand concept beat hundreds of design submissions in a competition to design the array. It is literally functional artwork. The “strand” generates about 740 kilowatts of electricity – or enough to power well over 100 households. The university has an action plan to be climate neutral by 2030, and the solar strand will be the tip of the iceberg for UB’s sustainability efforts.
It was a chilly and gray October afternoon when I took my trip to see Buffalo’s solar strand; which only reinforced stereotypical Buffalo autumn weather despite the beautiful fall foliage. My tour guide, Jim Simon (UB’s Sustainability Engagement Coordinator) arrived on one of UB’s social bikes, which are fitted with solar-powered GPS units and combination locks. Simon explained that members of the bike-sharing program have identification codes and numbers that allow them to sign out the bikes at any time at one of the campus bikeshare hubs. After marveling over the bikeshare’s gadgetry, we headed over to see the solar strand at the Flint Road campus entrance.
The first thing I noticed was that the entire area is completely accessible – not a fence or barrier in sight. This creates a peaceful space that is both a power plant and a park open to the public. The solar panels are reachable for viewing up-close, and the largest panels are slanted in such a way that they create shade and shelter for the area below. There are three “social rooms” among the panels, all paved with recycled sidewalk concrete. I noticed a small grouping of tree stumps in the largest of these rooms. I was informed that these stumps were purposely left in place – this is a seating area straight from nature!
The area is very unkempt in terms of landscaping; this gives it a natural – even wild feel. The field around the array was left alone by landscapers to regenerate natural vegetation after construction was complete. Surrounding grass is waist-high in some places, and thistles and wildflowers grow as high as the panels. On the day of my visit, recent rain resulted in muddy pools, creating wetland habitat perfect for many bird species like Blue Herons and Canada geese. In fact, several bird species including geese, sparrows, and swallows, have taken to nesting in the solar strand field.
When the sun goes down, larger mammals like coyote and deer emerge to enjoy the area. In fact, the animal tracks are visible in the mud. Additional local species like rabbits, groundhogs, and even skunks are welcome residents of the solar strand park.
So, the UB solar strand is beautiful, functional, and accommodating to both people and, most importantly, wildlife. My question is, why isn’t this concept more widely adopted for solar plants around the world?
In the United States alone the clash between solar energy projects and animal habitat has resulted in major problems. In the summer of 2013, a proposed solar project in California called the Calico Solar Project, was cancelled with an explanation that was foggy, at best. Although the official reason given for the project’s withdrawal was “changing market conditions,” environmental concerns surrounding habitat disruption plagued the project immediately. Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club were staunchly opposed to the planned 8.2 acre site of the solar plant. The three main species of concern in this project were the desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, and desert bighorn sheep.
While the climate and wildlife of Buffalo and the Mojave Desert couldn’t be more dissimilar, the concept of wildlife-friendly solar farms can include all habitats. Most Southwest solar farms dwarf the UB solar strand in size and capacity, but there are several lessons they can learn from the Buffalo installation. If UB can build a solar power plant that is friendly and beneficial to the surrounding environment, it should be possible in other places as well.
I find it hard to believe that technology exists to provide wildlife with bridges to cross highways, and special exits to avoid ending up as bycatch in fishing nets, but there’s no way to access their habitat where we have built solar panels.
In the early twentieth century, Buffalo, New York was the first city in the United States to be illuminated by electric lighting. Now, Buffalo can spark a new energy innovation. The sustainable and ecological elements of UB’s solar strand can lead by example for solar power plants that produce energy, and protect habitat simultaneously.
Recently, the Ivanpah solar power facility was officially brought online. This massive solar thermal plant includes pens for desert tortoises found or hatched on the property to burrow, and eventually be released back into the wild. I’m not sure Ivanpah is directly modeled after the UB Solar Strand, but it looks like solar plants and habitat coexistence is starting to catch on!
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