In our previous article in this series, our specialists explored the opportunities for Australia to be a leader in the global energy transformation through renewable energies, including green hydrogen. However, the switch to renewables comes with its own set of challenges and impacts, including risks to biodiversity and environmental values. In this article, WSP’s Tara Kennedy, Bronte Nixon and Rodney Van der Ree discuss the complex balance between achieving emissions reduction and conserving nature.
To achieve net zero, Australia will need to rapidly accelerate the transition to renewable energy – and this exciting energy future is likely to include a range of technologies and opportunities, including wind, solar and hydropower firmed by batteries and pumped hydro, coupled with a green hydrogen energy pathway.
The scale, speed and geographical distribution of the clean energy rollout will be influenced by many factors, including natural resources, demand patterns, costs, supporting infrastructure, policy and regulation. Amongst these many considerations, a central concern should be the environmental impacts of each project, particularly potential impacts on biodiversity.
The relationship between renewable energy and biodiversity
Biodiversity is under pressure across the globe – from loss of habitat, the degradation of land and water resources, the spread of invasive species, and, of course, climate change. Renewable energy is a vital part of the climate solution. So, in the simple, big-picture, linear version of this equation there is a direct, positive relationship between renewable energy and biodiversity: more renewable energy mitigates climate risk, consequently reducing the risk to biodiversity in the longer term. However, the reality of the relationship between renewable energy development and biodiversity is more complicated.
Renewable energy infrastructure, for the most part, has to be constructed outside urban areas, which often means developing on agricultural land with associated pockets of remnant native vegetation. These are often the only areas of native vegetation left outside of national and conservation parks, and usually require clearing to facilitate construction. Depending upon the jurisdiction, some sort of Significant Environmental Benefit payment or compensation will be required to make up for this loss … but those payments do not help the situation ‘now’, particularly when it comes to habitat loss.
As well as the direct loss of habitat due to clearance for renewable energy infrastructure development, there are also ongoing operational impacts on biodiversity. All forms of renewable energy can have unintended environmental impacts. Wind turbines present a collision hazard or deterrent for birds (particularly raptors) and bats. Hydropower can disrupt fish movements and change natural water flows, affecting downstream fauna and flora. Solar farms require space, which could supplant other beneficial land uses. Hydrogen production demands a significant amount of water – a precious resource on our dry continent. And construction and operation of any form of clean energy facility will call for more supporting linear infrastructure such as roads and associated additional truck or car movements (which disrupt habitat and create risks for local fauna), as well as transmission lines, which are another challenge – especially for birds, bats and native vegetation – unless installed underground.
Even if impacts seem minor when viewed in terms of individual projects, they may become considerable in terms of cumulative impacts. For example, the impact of one wind farm on the flight patterns and roosting behaviours of local bird species might be manageable if enough alternative habitat remains nearby and there are no other major barriers to flight paths. But what happens when more wind farms are built in the same area? If multiple desalination plants operate in the same area for hydrogen production, could this have a potentially significant impact on marine life?
As the renewable energy transition accelerates and scales up over the coming years, we must ensure that renewable energy developments are causing as little environmental harm as possible, minimising impacts and working towards biodiversity benefits wherever possible.
Building in biodiversity protection from the outset
Tara Kennedy, Energy Sector Lead for Earth & Environment, knows that the best time for a renewable energy project to start considering and mitigating biodiversity impacts is right from inception.
“The consideration of ecology impacts often used to happen after design, but in many contemporary clean energy projects, there is a growing recognition that this needs to be done from day one of feasibility and pre-planning,” she says.
“It is a situation where doing more work up front is likely to save costs and challenges in the long term. With smarter project design that considers environmental values, you can reduce the overall footprint, which is important for achieving a social licence to operate and may also potentially reduce financial liability for offsets.”
Bronte Nixon, Technical Executive for Environment, Planning and Approvals, agrees. “There are many competing environmental and community issues that need to be balanced in order to achieve net zero, whilst also making allowances for uncertainties and mitigating risks.
“In early site selection studies, we help clients understand the environmental and regulatory impacts of developing in areas containing remnant vegetation and biodiversity values. A project will also require broader environmental impact risk assessment studies, due diligence and feasibility studies, as well as consideration of Native Title and Connection to Country for the First Nations peoples of the area,” she says.
Considering biodiversity in site selection
Biodiversity impacts can be minimised, or even avoided, by prioritising environmental values in the site selection process and locating infrastructure away from sensitive habitat areas and species.
“Site selection should take account of biodiversity values, conservation covenants, Aboriginal heritage, social and community factors, as well as the renewable energy resource,” says Bronte.
“Tools have been developed for some states and renewable sectors to support this multifaceted site selection process, with the many important considerations layered in a GIS-based system. These tools can help renewable energy developers identify the most appropriate location for their projects, and any potential land use challenges or obstacles, from a very early stage.
“If we set higher values for ecological factors in multi-criteria analysis processes for site selection, we are more likely to develop renewable energy projects with a smaller environmental footprint.”
A win-win scenario for the environment, the community and the developer is situating new renewable energy infrastructure on previously developed or degraded sites rather than on a greenfield site, and reusing infrastructure or materials rather than bringing new materials to site. Some notable recent examples include the use of disused gold mining pits to form the reservoirs for the Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project in Far North Queensland, and the redevelopment of the Hazelwood coal power station to host the modular units of the Hazelwood Battery Energy Storage System, making use of existing substation and transmission infrastructure.
Supporting biodiversity through design and operations
“Ideally, we would locate infrastructure away from sensitive environmental values,” says Tara. “But we can also support biodiversity through careful design modifications or by making some adjustments in construction or operation. For example, project activities could be scheduled around species considerations, such as not doing blasting during key breeding times.”
Rodney Van der Ree, Technical Executive – Ecology, says it’s all about making informed decisions, and there isn’t necessarily a single right answer.
“If you are building a solar plant, but you need to remove all the trees, do you create artificial hollows for fauna, do you transplant the trees, or do you look at moving to a different piece of land? If you are building a road and the most direct route is through the best bit of bushland, do you change the route or build wildlife bridges?”
“Where avoidance, minimisation and mitigation of impacts are not possible, biodiversity offsetting is another consideration,” says Tara, “but it should be a last resort.”
Going beyond the baseline: embracing biodiversity opportunities
“It is time for ‘biodiversity’ to move beyond the mindset of ‘impact’, and to embrace conservation as not only a business requirement but also as an opportunity,” says Bronte.
Tara agrees. “The clean energy industry has the opportunity to go beyond merely preserving existing conditions or replacing what is lost. With biodiversity increasingly under threat, we need to explore every opportunity for habitat restoration or rehabilitation. For example, when we revegetate an area around a piece of new infrastructure, could we select key habitat plants for vulnerable local species, so that we leave an added biodiversity benefit?
“Working closely with traditional owners is important here, as deep local knowledge will inform the most appropriate restoration and rehabilitation choices.”
“It is never too early to establish ecological conservation programs associated with development projects,” says Bronte, “and social licence is likely to be stronger if the conservation initiatives are integrated with local communities and local capacity building.”
Delivering a sustainable future, locally and globally
Is it inevitable that facilitating a greener energy future through new renewable developments will cause some biodiversity impacts along the way? Are these trade-offs unavoidable in the energy transition?
“At WSP, we recognise that this is a global challenge,” says Tara, “and thanks to our Future ReadyTM program we keep it front of mind whenever we are talking to clients and thinking about projects. Low-emissions energy is a virtuous goal, but it must not come at the expense of nature. For a sustainable future, climate action must go hand-in-hand with broader environmental stewardship.”
Rodney expects that the community’s differentiation between climate and environment will become more sophisticated over time.
“Originally, net zero was bundled up with the environment, but I think as we get closer to 2050, they will be separated out because they’re not the same,” he says. “You can have an entirely emissions-neutral project, but you might have cleared 10 hectares of irreplaceable habitat to create it.”
If we can minimise impacts on biodiversity and even enhance baseline conditions at the local level of each individual renewable energy development in Australia, we can look forward to a much more sustainable future for Australia. We will be well on the path to net zero, whilst also protecting our complex and precious remnant ecological systems and species.