Solar panel array. Credit: Alexander MacDougall | Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — If you’re working on new energy construction projects that are friendlier to the environment, how do you know where to build them so they won’t have a harmful impact on wildlife? That is a question that Sarah Haggerty and the Maine Audubon Society have been trying to answer.

Maine Audubon sees one of the most pressing concerns regarding climate change as the impact it has on wildlife and natural habitats. As climate zones shift due to the increase in overall warming of Earth, some species may be adversely affected through habitat changes or new invasive species may threaten the local wildlife population, Haggerty, a conservation biologist with the organization, said.

To combat this, Maine Audubon sees construction and installations of cleaner energy sources — such as wind and solar — as necessary to help reduce the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the environment.

Besides being a conservation biologist, Haggerty also specializes in working with data mapping using Geographic Information Systems. Using this mapping, she has marked out areas that she has determined are safe locations to build wind farms, without negatively affecting the environment.

“There’s an online map where you can go in and look and see where the wind resources are, at different hub heights — which are the tower heights, essentially — and where the natural resources are,” Haggerty said. “It’s really more to give that big picture — this conceptual idea that there’s plenty of room in Maine where you can put good high-quality wind and energy projects without necessarily impacting the natural resources that we’re trying to protect.”

The map looks at the entire state and highlights all areas with wind speeds of more than six and half meters per second, the necessary level necessary to be considered commercially viable for wind energy. It then imposes that over nearby significant wildlife areas with regulatory oversight, as well as locations of vulnerable and endangered species — such as the Bicknell’s thrush, a rare bird found in mountainous areas — that may otherwise make good areas for wind farms.

Haggerty and Maine Audubon are looking to do the same type of mapping for solar siting projects in the state. They’ve also joined a broad coalition of solar developers, environmental and agricultural nonprofits and some state agencies to advocate for more solar power generation in the state. The group succeeded in getting legislation passed and signed into law in the last session to advance solar policies in the state.

Haggerty said there are more restrictions for siting solar farms than wind farms because of the need for existing energy infrastructure, such as electric transmission lines. But she plans to release a new map in the next few weeks showing areas that Maine Audubon consider safe sites to build solar projects without disrupting wildlife.

“Solar is about to explode in the landscape of Maine and we want to see that, but again we want to see that in the right places,” she said.

With wildlife areas ruled out, many of the suitable solar project sites are on land owned by farmers and already cleared for agriculture. In Aroostook County, that land is in large tracts and often close to the infrastructure needed for solar energy to succeed.

Those farmers can be compensated for their land, with incentives such as the Rural Energy for America Program available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which offers grants to farmers who allow renewable energy to be built on their land.

“Farmers usually contact me because they’ve seen their neighbors do the same thing so they get interested in it,” said Dale Roy, owner of Maine Solar and Wind, a company based in Fort Kent that does solar installations around Aroostook County.

One such project is a 945-panel solar installation located on private farm property in Caribou — one of the biggest projects in the state. “I’m busy enough that I don’t go out and look for work,” Roy said.

But farmers also need to be assured that any solar construction does not diminish their agricultural output. Organizations that advocate for farmers have been working alongside Maine Audubon to find ideal locations for solar siting — places that are agreeable to both wildlife and farmland.

“We want to make sure that there’s the right balance between support for solar energy production and support for agricultural production,” said Ellen Griswold, the policy and research director for Maine Farmland Trust, a non-profit organization that supports and advocates for Maine farmers.

“It’s to advocate for economic incentives for solar developers to do what may be more costly projects for them, but achieving that balance,” Griswold said. “That way, it’s a win for everyone.”