NatureWatt LLC.: A Guide to Environmentally and Socially Responsible Utility-Scale Solar Development in the Southeastern United States

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2020-04-24

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Utility-scale solar photovoltaic electricity generation is growing rapidly across America, and as a result, concerning impacts on the natural environment are starting to add up. Recognizing that North Carolina has the second largest capacity of utility-scale solar generation in the country, the Nature Conservancy of North Carolina has been compelled to intervene (SEIA, 2019). Concerned about the negative impacts to the natural environment that solar development can cause, The Nature Conservancy of North Carolina has identified best practices for sustainable solar development and begun to explore ways to incentivize industry adoption (TNC, 2019). To this end, they called upon us, a Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment Masters Project team, to develop the first iteration of a voluntary-based certification system for eco-friendly solar farms. To create a certification program with the natural environment in mind, the first step was to identify core objectives for the guidebook, the reference document of the certification. This first objective was to compile negative impacts of solar development and provide mitigation and avoidance practices. The second was to estimate the qualitative costs and benefits of each practice so that stakeholders know what costs and benefits consider before they decide to pursue the certification. The last objective for the guidebook was to compile measurement tools for each practice so that the certification requirements are standardized and measurable. Together these objectives culminated in a guidebook that accomplishes the Nature Conservancy’s mission to protect and restore natural systems and biodiversity. The first step in the guidebook compilation process was to review the Principles of Low Impact Solar Siting and Design written by Elizabeth Kalies of the Nature Conservancy of North Carolina. This document is the foundation of the certification, as it lays out six principles that reflect the core practices of sustainable solar development. These principles include avoiding areas of native biodiversity, allowing for wildlife connectivity, using disturbed land, protecting water quality, restoring native plant species, and protecting and providing wildlife habitat (TNC, 2019). We aimed to further this research by reviewing additional literature regarding the impacts of solar development and other relevant topics, such as existing solar certification and other environmental certifications. In addition, informal interviews were used to gain stakeholder insight on existing mindful practices and new ideas surrounding community engagement. Once the research was complete, the writing of the guidebook began. The certification, entitled NatureWatt, is awarded through compliance with the NatureWatt Guidebook. This guidebook is comprised of four sections: Siting, Design, Social Impact, and Compliance. Each section contains principles supplemented by criteria that aim to provide a complete inventory of sustainable tactics for each step of solar project development. Each criterion contains measurement tools that must be used to measure compliance as well as qualitative, expected costs and benefits that stakeholders may incur. The NatureWatt Guidebook goes beyond the tangible aspects of solar development and includes tactics that address social impact. From promoting diversity, to community education, the guidebook offers innovative ways to address inequities in the communities where solar projects are built. The guidebook went through an extensive revision process, which included reviews by solar industry stakeholders. The NatureWatt certification draws attention to the importance of mindfulness of the surrounding environment during the siting and design of utility-scale solar generation. It is a comprehensive guidebook that allows for innovation and profitability, while allowing for the natural environment to thrive as it cohabitates with the new development. Further research opportunities will require subject matter experts who can place value on certain ecosystem services and experts who can create an implementation plan for industry adoption.

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Oberholzer, Alicia, and Alexis Schuster (2020). NatureWatt LLC.: A Guide to Environmentally and Socially Responsible Utility-Scale Solar Development in the Southeastern United States. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20518.


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