Bridging the Gap: Renewable Energy Expansion with Climate-Driven Species Range Shifts


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As a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Davis Wild Energy Center, I find myself at the forefront of an urgent mission: finding a pathway for renewable energy expansion that accommodates climate-driven range shifts of species. With ten years of experience in studying species distributions, I have found predicting where species will be in the future a fulfilling and challenging research endeavor. It requires balancing an understanding of the natural history of a species with its geographical range across time, in a process that is translated through modeling. As an exchange graduate student, I had the privilege of working in the renowned lab (KUENM) of Prof. A. Townsend and Peterson at the University of Kansas, where I gained valuable experience in species distribution modeling. Later, when I was an Assistant Professor at the Lahore School of Economics in Lahore, Pakistan, I developed a collaboration with  Dr. Toni Lyn Morelli, Dr. Adam B. Smith, and Prof. Rebecca R. Hernandez. Our shared passion for biodiversity conservation and sustainability fueled our collaboration. Inspired by the lack of research on linkages between renewable energy planning and biodiversity range shifts, we embarked on a journey of exploration and discovery. As a team, we secured a research grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Energy and Environment Program and the project officially ignited. In 2022, I landed at San Francisco International Airport and met Prof. Hernandez in person for the first time after a 22-hour journey from Pakistan. 

Our collaboration flourished as we delved into the complexities of aligning renewable energy expansion with climate-driven range shifts. With global demand for renewable energy soaring, concerns about its potential impacts on wildlife habitats have become increasingly urgent. Recognizing this imperative, our research team sought to develop a holistic framework that ensures a sustainable future for both renewable energy expansion and biodiversity conservation.

As nations strive to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the imperative for sustainable energy solutions becomes ever more pressing. Solar and wind energy, comprising a significant portion of this anticipated expansion, promise a cleaner and greener future. However, amidst this progress, a critical concern arises the potential conflicts between RE expansion and the shifting ranges of vulnerable species under climate change. Our research/project began with compiling a comprehensive dataset of all the species in the United States that had documented in the context of renewable energy siting and, for each species, if the authors mentioned shifts in their distribution related to climate change. We found almost no papers at the intersection of renewable energy development and future species ranges, highlighting the need for our research. Given the urgency of the issue, it was unexpected to find such a gap in research. 

For our research, we employed a comprehensive methodology to assess the potential impacts of renewable energy development on the habitat of species given climate-driven range shifts. We utilized species distribution models incorporating climate projections to predict how renewable energy projects might intersect with shifting species ranges. We selected two species, the Joshua Tree and the San Joaquin Kit fox, that seemed particularly vulnerable to a conflict between renewable energy development and range shifts. These iconic species represent many more that are facing habitat alterations due to human activities, including renewable energy development. By studying their responses to these environmental changes, we gain valuable insights into the broader implications of renewable energy expansion on biodiversity conservation. 

Our approach integrated simple overlay spatial analyses to identify priority areas for sustainable renewable energy infrastructure. What sets our methodology apart is its innovative integration of climate-driven species range shifts into decision-making processes, ensuring a more holistic approach to renewable energy planning that considers environmental and ecological factors. Our meticulous approach aimed to bridge the gap between conservation goals and renewable energy objectives, laying the groundwork for informed decision-making.

Our study's key findings underscore humanity's pivotal moment concerning climate change and biodiversity loss. While renewable energy is important for climate change mitigation, it also poses risks to biodiversity at local and regional scales. Our work illuminates opportunities to align renewable energy expansion with conservation goals, advocating for innovative siting strategies informed by species distribution modeling and climate projections.

Throughout our research journey, we encountered numerous challenges, from securing funding to navigating logistical hurdles. Yet, the scarcity of existing literature on the intersection of renewable energy development and species ranges surprised us. Additionally, the extent of conflict between current and future species ranges underscored the urgency of our work.

Addressing tradeoffs between renewable energy expansion and biodiversity conservation requires a nuanced approach. We advocate for win-win solutions that prioritize sustainable energy transition and biodiversity preservation. Our ongoing efforts focus on developing a comprehensive framework that integrates climate-driven species range shifts with fostering proactive planning and stakeholder collaboration.

The article proposes a forward-looking RE siting strategy that integrates climate-driven range shifts into decision-making processes in response to this imperative. Spatial analyses, connectivity assessments, and species distribution models are proposed as tools to identify priority areas for sustainable RE infrastructure. Transparency, decision-making, environmental justice, and stakeholder engagement are key to achieving harmonious coexistence between renewable energy and biodiversity. As climate change and biodiversity loss are interconnected global crises, the urgency to adopt a comprehensive approach cannot be overstated. The article contends that the time is ripe for a future-facing RE siting strategy that aligns with climate-driven species range shifts, paving the way for a sustainable and equitable coexistence of renewable energy and biodiversity. Ongoing monitoring, adaptive management strategies, and continued research and innovation are crucial for achieving a harmonious coexistence between renewable energy development and biodiversity preservation. In conclusion, our research exemplifies the importance of reconciling renewable energy expansion with biodiversity conservation. Our study paves the way for informed decision-making, fostering a sustainable future for future generations.

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Renewable Energy
Physical Sciences > Earth and Environmental Sciences > Environmental Sciences > Energy Policy, Economics and Management > Renewable Energy
Conservation Biology
Life Sciences > Biological Sciences > Ecology > Conservation Biology