Framework for a solar array under way on outer Broadway in Bangor in June 2022. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is discussing whether to evaluate proposed solar farms based on if the projects will cause fragmented habitats that restrict the movement of wildlife.

Solar developers currently have to comply with a number of siting rules to minimize potential damage to protected areas such as wetlands, streams and vernal pools. But conservation groups have been pushing the state to also take habitat connectivity into consideration, given that more and bigger solar farms are being built that sometimes require the clearing of hundreds of acres of forest.

Conserving key forest blocks protects biodiversity and provides species the pathways to migrate, said Eliza Donoghue, the director of advocacy and a staff attorney at Maine Audubon, a wildlife conservation organization. When habitats get broken up, it can make it more difficult for animals to find food, shelter and mates.

“We’re not suggesting that we should stop the build up of renewables. What we’re suggesting is that, when there are grid upgrades, we plan for these developments and create incentives and a structure that allows developers to set up in good locations,” said Samantha Horn, the director of science at The Nature Conservancy in Maine.

Solar developers, however, expressed concern about possibly using habitat mapping in approving their proposed projects. They already have a rigorous approval process, and reviewing sites for habitat fragmentation would only make it more difficult and lengthier, they said.

Habitat maps “could create unintended consequences and potentially restrict areas of development that were in fact appropriate and suitable for a solar project,” said Chris Byers, the owner of Branch Renewable Energy, a company that develops solar projects and provides consulting services.

In July, Naomi Kirk-Lawlor, the senior planner at the commissioner’s office of policy within the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, proposed using habitat maps to determine if solar projects would fragment forest in a way that would threaten local species.

In sharing the concept with the Board of Environmental Protection, she proposed applying habitat mapping only to the permitting of smaller, 20-to-50-acre, solar projects that meet the department’s criteria for having low impact.

The proposed rule would not change the regulatory framework for larger, possibly higher-impact projects. Kirk-Lawlor said the rulemaking hasn’t officially started and could not provide a timeline for when the department will decide whether to use habitat maps in its permitting process.

Members of the Maine Renewable Energy Association, an organization that represents renewable power producers, say they are confused about the proposal and don’t have clarity from the department yet on what the rulemaking around habitat connectivity would entail, Executive Director Jeremy Payne said.

“I don’t think there’s any resistance to having dialogue around habitat connectivity, but we just don’t think it should be a part of the permitting process,” Payne said.

Solar development is, for the most part, low impact.

Unlike many kinds of development, it does not require as much grading except for associated facilities or roads, said Marybeth Richardson, acting bureau director for the Bureau of Land Resources at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Some solar development can also lead to erosion, sedimentation problems or loss of habitats, she said.

“The challenge is understanding that the state of Maine wants to increase its renewable energy capacity but also that there’s a lot of other environmental effects that could result from these projects, and they are not always good,” Richardson said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

Maine’s largest solar farm, which has gotten state permit approval and is beginning construction, is projected to be 926 acres. Located in Kennebec County, the Three Corners Solar Project will generate enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes each year, according to the Massachusetts-based developer, Longroad Energy.

Noah Charney, an assistant professor in the department of wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology at the University of Maine, independently reviewed the project’s application documents and analyzed different online habitat maps. Though the land will require clearing, it was previously logged.

The development will likely disrupt the connection between wetlands and forests in the area, Charney said, but if he had to choose a forested site for solar development, it would be one that’s been previously logged like this one.

Still, habitat mapping is more essential for larger solar farms, Charney said, and the state shouldn’t limit the tool to small-scale, low-impact sites.

“I would think that mapping for larger sites is as important if not more important,” he said.

Do you have questions or observations about solar farms near you? Please email Mehr Sher at msher@bangordailynews.com.

Mehr Sher is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for this reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.

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Mehr Sher

Mehr Sher reports on the Maine environment. She is a Report for America corps member. Additional support for her reporting is provided by the Unity Foundation and donations by BDN readers.