WEST at AWWI Solar Symposium

WEST is proud to be a sponsor at AWWI Solar Power and Wildlife/Natural Resource Symposium and will be in attendance at the virtual conference this week.

The WEST team is participating in the following live and on-demand presentation sessions:

“Evaluating and Mitigating Impacts on Wildlife and Their Habitats & Water Resource Management” – Dr. Karl Kosciuch, Panelist

Group A – Risks of Solar Development to Avian Species (direct, habitat, and modeling cumulative impacts)

Live Panel Session: Thursday, December 2nd, 11:05 AM – 12:35 PM EST

Panel Description:

A first step in developing research priorities is to understand the state of the science. This two-part panel features experts summarizing the state of the science on direct and habitat-related risks of solar power to birds and other wildlife species, followed by a discussion on approaches to model population and cumulative impacts to various species of concern.

“Aquatic habitat bird occurrences at photovoltaic energy development in Southern California, U.S.” – Dr. Karl Kosciuch, Presenter

Presentation Description:

The development of photovoltaic (PV) utility scale solar energy (USSE) in the desert southwest has the potential to negatively affect birds through collision mortality. Based on early patterns in fatality monitoring data, the lake effect hypothesis (LEH) was developed and suggested that birds misinterpret PV solar panels for water; however, no explicit tests of predictions of the LEH have been completed. We collected data from five PV USSE facilities and reference areas in three habitat types in southern California, U.S. to determine if general predictions under the LEH were supported for aquatic habitat birds. We did not find that live aquatic habitat birds occurred more frequently at the PV USSE facilities than in the paired reference areas of similar habitat. Although the bird community (live and dead) contained aquatic habitat species, bird diversity was 3-4 times higher and standardized use was more than an order of magnitude higher at a small regional lake. Finally, we did not observe aquatic habitat bird fatalities in the desert/scrub and grassland reference areas. Thus, the idea of ‘lake effect’ in which birds perceive a PV USSE facility as a waterbody and are broadly attracted is likely an overgeneralization of a nuanced process.

Obtaining an Estimate of Western Joshua Tree Abundance from Digitized Imagery when Field Survey Data are Available” – Dr. Leigh Ann Starcevich, Presenter

Presentation Description:

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently responded to a listing petition for the western Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and is reviewing the status as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act. To help inform this decision, Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. (WEST) was tasked by several solar energy companies to examine existing data from solar facility field surveys to determine if an estimate of western Joshua trees within the defined range could be calculated. WEST used digitized imagery to obtain counts of Joshua trees across the range and within project boundaries where existing field survey data was available. By quantifying the relationship between digitized counts and field data within solar projects, the digitized counts obtained from a spatially balanced sample across the range will be used to obtain an estimate of the total number of western Joshua trees in the range by and across size classes. We discuss the statistical methods, potential sources of bias, and an assessment of the range boundary as well as implications of results for the listing decision. We also discuss other applications to the cost effective method including micro-siting, macro-siting, and selection of mitigation sites.

Floating Solar and Natural Resource Issues” – Tracy Brunner and Dr. Chris Farmer, Panelist

Panel Description:

Floating solar photovoltaics (FPV) are an emerging technology that provide renewable energy in locations where land may be at a premium or unavailable for traditional ground-mounted solar farms. This technology has been in use in Asia and Europe since 2007 and is becoming increasingly considered for use in the US. Placing solar panels on bodies of water that may be used as industrial water sources, drinking water supplies, or for recreation creates new environmental and regulatory challenges not experienced with terrestrial installations. Impacts to natural resources from these projects differ from land-based systems. In addition, while some land-use and/or environmental permitting for FPV is similar to land-based systems, some regulatory requirements and approaches can be quite different and may involve new applications of existing regulations. In addition, linking to land-based points of interconnection and associated facilities can create additional impacts to sometimes sensitive shoreline habitats. We will illustrate key natural resource and other environmental resource impacts for consideration at FPV projects, such as impacts to fish communities, benthic habitats, water quality, and indirect effects on terrestrial species as well as beneficial uses such as evaporation reduction and habitat creation. We will bring to light some of the permitting challenges such as water rights, impaired waters, and additional federal permitting needs, as well as the complexities of adapting federal, state, and local regulations and ordinances that were not designed for FPV. Finally, we will present examples of potential natural resource and environmental resource issues from three states with varying potential resource concerns and potentially complex regulatory environments for development of FPV: New Jersey, Texas, and California.

Foundational Issues in Integrated Vegetation Management at Solar Facilities: Setting the Stage During Construction Contracting” – Elizabeth Markhart, Presenter

Presentation Description:

At the interface of the built and natural environment, be it ground-mounted solar, a commercial campus, or highway development is the “how to manual” for the built features and restoring the disturbed land footprint. Whether it be the ecological restoration or civil engineering trade, the “how to manual” is found within the Plans and Specifications, the guidance used by construction and/or restoration contractors and the Owner to verify the quality and completeness of the work through clearly spelled out items and expectations for payment and conditions for acceptance. This on-demand presentation will cover the importance of the construction contracting process, including all too common mistakes and inefficiencies, and the bid items to be included in a good contract to set the stage for integrated vegetation management at new solar facilities.  The contracting technical items covered will include the bid form, standards for interim and final acceptance points for payment, and oversight responsibilities. We will also cover the differences and interplay between the short-term Clean Water Act obligations for any land disturbance and the potential longer-term goal of promoting cost-effective, desirable, and stable vegetation at a solar facility that advances secondary ecosystem services (e.g., wildlife habitat, soil improvements, carbon sequestration, water quality improvements, etc.).

Golden Eagle Breeding Response to Utility-Scale Solar Development – A Case Study” – Eric Hallingstad, Presenter

Presentation Description:

WEST monitored Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) at the utility-scale California Flats Solar Project (Project), a 280-megawatt photovoltaic (PV) facility located in Monterey County, California, to determine how Project construction and operation affected nest occupancy, success and productivity (collectively, breeding performance). We monitored 12 territories located within 3.5 km of the Project (Study Area) over nine years during three development phases (study period): pre-construction (2013-2015), construction (2016-2019), and post-construction (2020-2021). We tested whether nest proximity to the Project (<1.6 km vs >1.6 km), development phase, or drought levels (ranging from 0 to 5) affected breeding performance. We confirmed relatively consistent nest occupancy rates within the Study Area during all phases of Project development (79%, 82%, and 83% during pre-construction, construction, and post-construction periods, respectively), and detected the establishment of two new nesting territories as the Project entered the operation phase. Occupancy rates were slightly higher within 1.6 km of the Project, but were negatively impacted under elevated drought conditions (levels 4 and 5). Overall nest success (measured as the proportion of laying pairs that raised at least one young in a given season) increased from 0.62 prior to construction to 0.88 during both the construction and post-construction development phases. Neither proximity to the Project, development phase, nor drought level were significant (α=0.10) predictors of nest success.Overall nest productivity also increased during the study period, from 0.73 young produced per occupied nest during pre-construction to 1.0 and 1.2 young produced per occupied nest during construction and post-construction, respectively. Productivity was lower at nests within 1.6 km of the Project; however, nests closest to the Project produced fewer young during all three phases of development and development phase was not a significant (α=0.10) predictor of nest productivity. Drought level showed an inconsistent effect on nest productivity; the lowest productivity occurred in the lone year of extreme drought (level 4), while nests produced comparatively more young during both less and more severe drought levels. Our findings suggest that Project development and the first two years of Project operation did not adversely affect golden eagle breeding performance within the Study Area. Comparable data are needed from additional facilities in other regions to evaluate potential influences of PV development on golden eagle breeding performance.  

Power Lines, Substations, and Solar Energy Generation: Emerging Issues to Address Bird Electrocution and Collision Risks, System Reliability, Legal Liability, and Regulatory Compliance through Design, Engineering, and Suggested Practices” – Lori Nielsen, Presenter

Presentation Description:

The presentation would focus on issues that have been emerging (and growing) for solar energy development, including aboveground collector lines (electrocution and collision) within the solar array, substation design to minimize bird and other wildlife contacts and potential outages, raven and owl interactions with power infrastructure that have resulted in electrocutions and wildfires, and collision risk to birds along the transmission gen-tie lines that connect the solar facility to the grid. Discussions would include the communication disconnects that sometimes occur among the Developer, Operator, and Engineering specific to minimizing risk of bird contacts; new facility Owner expectations; the role the Avian Power Line Interaction Committee (APLIC) plays in planning; and what this means for advance design and communications. We would include historical issues observed, including the prevalence of wildfires (multiple) from bird contacts (damage and liability), short- and long-term substation outages that affects facility reliability, and common multi-circuit collector lines that may present a high risk of both electrocution and collision within a solar facility.

Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Artificial Intelligence to Detect Bird Carcasses and Bird Nests at Utility Scale Solar Projects” – Michael Gerringer, co-presenter in collaboration with EPRI

Presentation Description:

There are costly operation inspections and environmental compliance monitoring requirements for large photovoltaic solar projects including detection of wildlife mortality, bird nests, vegetation cover, and identification of panel defects and contamination (e.g., dirt, bird droppings). Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS’s) provide state-of-the-art, cost effective means of collecting visual and thermal imagery in a wide range of applications. However, these remote sensing operations collect large amounts of images that must be processed and analyzed before the data can be used to gather useful information. Computer vision with deep learning provides a tool to automatically and rapidly process these data. Western EcoSystems Technology, Inc. and the Electric Power Research Institute received funding from the Department of Energy to develop and test efficient UAS sampling methodology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions for multiple solar project inspection tasks with a focus on bird carcass detection and nest detection. Monitoring of bird fatalities at utility-scale solar facilities is challenging and costly because it relies on surveys conducted by human observers or dog teams. As the solar industry grows, technological solutions are a viable solution for long- and short-term monitoring. The goal of this study is to develop and validate a cost-effective drone-AI solution to automatically detect bird carcasses and nests at utility-scale solar facilities. We have completed image collection for the nest component of the study and have begun to develop and test models that automatically process thermal images of bird nests using computer vision and deep learning. Based on the images the network has been trained and tested on so far, nest detection rate is 93% at a flight height of 20 meters (m) above ground level (AGL) and 86% at a flight height of 35 m AGL. The false positive rate is presently zero at both flight heights. Preliminary results from the carcass detection component of the study, which will take place during October 2021, will also be presented.