Carl makes a valid point about the destructiveness to flora and fauna of large 
scale solar arrays. Solar panels which cover huge fields should be called 
mines, not farms. The arrays’ extraction of energy is industrial, not 
biological, and it is done while trying to overcome natural systems, so the 
solar arrays disrupt biology. By contrast, a farm harnesses biology using our 
soil and rain, and it diverts some of the biological products to human purposes 
in a repeatable annual process. When agriculture is practiced on the scale of a 
family farm, it can do so in concert with plants and wildlife in hedgerows, 
along streams, and around ponds, and agriculture’s incidental waste products 
can be more easily absorbed and used by nature along all those edges. Factory 
farms differ from traditional farms because with “efficiency” of scale, they 
eliminate nature and nature’s ability to handle agriculture’s side effects. At 
large scale, the waste is no longer incidental and absorbed, it is toxic. 

If farm land is abandoned, it can be reclaimed by plants and animals. When the 
solar panels wear out in a couple decades, will the regulations make it worth 
the effort and expense to recycle the old ones and install new ones? Or will it 
be cheaper to abandon those arrays? On my daily walks I see metal playground 
equipment in the woods because the City of Ithaca took it from where the 
Children’s Garden was being built, and chucked it alongside the old railroad 
grade, which became the Black Diamond Trail. I imagine hundreds of acres of 
metal of a big solar array, but overgrown among trees, vines and shrubs. 

For a solar array to work in our climate, vegetation must suppressed. This can 
be done by pasturing sheep among them, which makes cute advertising video, but 
how often is this practice used? How often is plant suppression done instead by 
covering and/or poisoning the soil? This has effects of heating the ground and 
speeding rain runoff. How often is plant suppression among solar arrays done 
with fossil-fuel powered machinery which also wastes the plant material? Maybe 
folks think that’s no big deal because so much land area is already mown, 
wasting both plants and fossil fuel, but I think mowing should be drastically 
scaled back. A reasonable sized personal lawn is the area a person can keep 
mowed with a reel mower pushed by hand without using fossil fuel. It’s not 
worth adding to the destruction of the natural climate, flora, and fauna in 
order to have a bigger lawn than one actually uses. 

So, yes, I agree, big solar arrays are poor for plants & animals. I also see at 
least 3 other parts to the equation as we evaluate the harm and benefit of 
solar arrays. What did the solar arrays replace on the landscape? What were the 
solar arrays built instead of for energy? How much energy do we need? 

In our moist temperate region, the land was mostly forested until being cleared 
for agriculture, which was a big investment. Abandoned agricultural land can, 
through succession, become meadows, shrub fields, and secondary forest, all of 
which harbor a wide variety of birds, but that’s a value we take for granted, 
not one with a price tag on it. People generally like and are uplifted by wild 
birds, and some of us are passionate about them. But abandoned farmland is 
considered “unproductive” by those who tax the land, and therefore also by 
those who own the land, so this habitat is apt to be shredded and converted to 
a large scale solar array. I’ve certainly seen that happen. If we as a society 
can literally value land which supports a diversity of birds, then less will be 
turned into long-term non-bird-habitat. 

My impression is that most agricultural land around here is for corn, and I’ve 
also seen some cornfields replaced by solar arrays. What’s the impact on birds? 
What do we lose when a cornfield is replaced by a solar array? Cornfields are 
lousy habitat for breeding birds, but blackbirds feed there in spring and 
autumn, and waterfowl may feed there in winter. If old-fashioned manure is 
spread, then Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and a few Lapland Longspurs may visit 
to feed. And if they are quick about it, Horned Larks might nest on the bare 
dirt before farmers get too active there. Pesticides used on corn affects 
insects, birds, and aquatic animals beyond the fields. What is the corn used 
for? Regulations require ethanol to be added to gasoline. Ethanol is easy to 
make from corn, so lots of corn goes there, which helps keep corn prices high 
and lots of land in corn, even though corn takes so much energy to produce, 
what with pesticides & fertilizers & machines, that adding ethanol from corn 
increases the carbon footprint of the gasoline. Maybe the sway of 
corn-producing states, especially Iowa with its early caucus, is some of the 
politics Carl mentioned. Another big use of corn is for high-fructose corn 
syrup, a cheap sweetener which is a big ingredient of many processed foods and 
beverages, and which has been implicated in our epidemics of obesity and 
diabetes. Again, politics may sway how health is studied and the public is 
informed. Another big use of corn is feed for livestock. While I enjoy eating 
meat, cheese, yogurt, butter, ice cream, and eggs, I also know that foods which 
are higher on the food chain, especially cattle, take an awful lot of energy 
and water to produce, and in many cases produce a lot of pollution. I don’t 
need lots of meat, not every day. And what I eat doesn’t need to be totally 
dependent on corn. I can eat local pork and eggs which are produced with less 
negative impact on wildlife, the environment, and the climate. And if you eat 
dairy, wouldn’t you prefer to support a farm where the family appreciates 
birds, practices farming in a way that allows them to accrue a yard list of 
over 200 species, and welcomes the birding public to appreciate the rarities 
such as the Say’s Phoebe, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Yellow Rail that chose 
to visit? I’m talking about the Troyers’ Birdsong Meadow Farm in Candor. They 
have pastures and hayfields, where they reserve space for a thriving colony of 
Bobolinks, but they don’t feed their cows corn at all. The Troyer farm’s milk 
goes to Organic Valley, in case you want to support conscientious bird-friendly 

But if a corn field, which uses lots of energy, and depletes topsoil, and often 
results in erosion, and produces plenty of pesticide pollution, and has dubious 
societal benefit, gets taken out of corn production, should it also be taken 
out of biology by installing a huge solar array? Seneca Meadows shows that, 
with effort, corn fields can return to exceptional wildlife habitat. Similarly, 
Montezuma Wetlands Complex is on land that was once the vast Montezuma Marshes 
which were a big barrier to building the Erie Canal, then were drained and used 
as farm land (potatoes, then corn in my memory) with dikes & channels to 
deliberately flood & drain the fields. Former corn fields still have potential 
for birds. 

What are the solar arrays erected instead of, in terms of energy sources? If 
it’s burning coal or petroleum, or gas from the ground, those energy sources 
add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere directly at large scale through burning. 
There is tremendous land destruction and water pollution and air pollution from 
mining and washing coal, and dealing with the leftover ash and the mining 
wastes. It turns out that newly exposed rock is not benign; it has elements 
exposed and chemicals produced which are toxic. Likewise, be happy you don’t 
live where petroleum is produced, or shipped, or refined, because those places 
are toxic. Much petroleum nowadays, like much gas mining, is extracted by 
fracking, which involves pumping chemicals into the ground at high pressure in 
order fracture the rock. Those liquids come back up even more toxic, saline, 
and radioactive but must be “disposed of” somewhere. Dumped? Spread on roads to 
melt ice? Sent to a wastewater treatment plant that was designed only for 
digesting human feces? Some of the fracking chemicals make the groundwater 
unsafe to drink. And some of the gases being mined leak into the groundwater or 
out of the ground or leak out of systems designed to collect and contain them. 
In some cases those gases are not what is being sought, so they are 
deliberately vented or burned. Problem is, those gases are themselves 
greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which is over 80 times stronger of a 
greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So, what advertisers quaintly named 
“natural” gas is anathema to nature. We know that the addition of greenhouse 
gases to the atmosphere has caused the rising atmospheric temperature, among 
other deleterious effects too numerous to list here (but Alicia made a good 
start!), and those effects are in the process of moving and removing bird 
habitats at an unprecedented pace. So, we’re trying to weigh big negative 
consequences of large-scale, popular fossil fuel use, consequences which are 
easy to overlook, because they are either in someone else’s backyard, or they 
are everywhere but gradual. 

Other energy sources include nuclear. I think the same PR people who coined the 
lie “clean coal” also were hired by the nuclear industry. Technically, a 
nuclear power plant isn’t spewing carbon dioxide as it’s main product, but it 
uses plenty of energy, much of which does spew CO2, and it has radioactive 
waste which, in the time scale of human civilization, never goes away. The 
trail of radioactive waste starts when & where uranium is mined. The Native 
Americans who were “given” the apparent wasteland where that mining later 
occurred now have pollution on their land, in their air, and in their desert 
water, and they have a high cancer rate. 

Natural uranium is only 0.72% U-235, the rest being U-238, but it must be 2% to 
5% U-235 to be used in a typical nuclear power plant (and much higher for 
weapons). This means that the great majority of the mined uranium, (the U-238 
which has been “depleted” of some of it’s accompanying U-235) would be waste. 
As of 2020 about 2 million tons of it had accumulated. But the military found a 
use for the incredibly dense metallic form. Ask the folks in Iraq about living 
where depleted uranium shells and bullets were used. When they impact, they 
damage what they hit, then the shattered uranium spontaneously burns when the 
bits are exposed to air, and being a heavy metal, its oxide is toxic. And the 
process for “enriching” the uranium for use in power plants uses a quarter of 
the energy that the power plant would make (much more for weapons), and uses 
fluorine, whose compounds are highly toxic and very powerful greenhouse gases. 
Everything used during every step becomes radioactive waste. What’s left over 
after use in a power plant is a much more diverse mess that we haven’t figured 
out what to do with, so it accumulates in pools of water on site at power 

Hydropower sounds cool unless you live in the valley that is being flooded or 
care about the fish who breed there or streamside habitats. 

I happen to think wind turbines are beautiful, and one can farm among them, but 
I don’t live next to one, and I’ve heard that many people don’t want to. 
Certainly the idea of a blade flying off is scary. Do wind turbines kill birds? 
Yes. How many? Hard to tell. I once tried to help Bill Evans look for dead 
birds below a tall radio tower after a foggy night during migration. If you 
think seeing a warbler in a leafy tree is hard, try looking for it when you 
have no clues from sound, movement, habitat, shape, color, or pattern. The dead 
birds had fallen randomly in the weeds below the guy wires. They looked like 
bits of fluff because their contour feathers were completely disheveled in odd 
positions that often obscured the wings & head. We arrived early in the 
morning, hoping to find them before the knowledgeable local scavengers, such as 
skunks, foxes, and crows. Some wind turbines are erected in the ocean. I doubt 
that the remains of long-lived, slow-reproducing birds such Puffins would be 
found below a wind turbine at sea. 

My point is that, while fossil fuel use is rapidly wrecking the climate in 
numerous ways for people and for birds and for lots more things which we care 
about, at the same time all energy sources when scaled up have scaled up 
downsides, and few of us would want to live where any one of those energy 
sources was about to be added. Furthermore, just adding solar arrays doesn’t 
actually help the fight against climate change. To fight climate change we need 
to stop using fossil fuels. And we haven’t been doing that. 

Look at the Keeling Curve. That’s the continuous record of atmospheric CO2 
since 1958. It records the biosphere breathing. The CO2 level falls a few parts 
per million every year in spring and summer as the plants in the northern 
hemisphere photosynthesize, then the CO2 level rises in autumn and winter as 
decay takes over. But every single year the rise has been a little more than 
the drop. The yearly averages form a smooth upward curve. It was below 320ppm 
in 1958 and this year it’s poised to cross 420ppm. The amount of atmospheric 
CO2 has risen by over 50% since the start of the Industrial Revolution and mass 
coal use, but it’s risen by about a third just in my lifetime. We’ve had at 
least 35 years of public awareness of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, climate 
change, and predictions of problems becoming reality, alongside a steady 
disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, who still rake in record 
profits, despite renewable energy now being less expensive than fossil fuels. 
What’s our current situation? According to a report from NOAA last November, we 
have barely slowed the *increase* in the emissions of CO2.,highest%20annual%20total%20ever%20recorded.

According to that report, “Land use changes, especially deforestation, are a 
significant source of CO2 emissions - equivalent to about a tenth of the amount 
of CO2 coming from fossil fuel emissions.” In this annual carbon accounting, 
“Planting new forests counterbalances half the deforestation.” So, while 
planting trees is good, we are a very long way from addressing the CO2 
emissions from fossil fuels by planting trees. We would need to increase that 
effort twenty-fold. 

The ocean will only absorb a fraction of atmospheric CO2, and the report says, 
“the ocean’s capacity to be a sink is finite”. Furthermore, it says that 
warming of the water is reducing its ability to absorb CO2. 

Because all types of large scale energy production are destructive, I think we 
should do all we can, both personally, by encouraging others, and by promoting 
policies, to increase energy efficiency, and to reduce energy use. And because 
fossil fuels are driving climate change, we need to stop using them. 

So, yes, solar arrays are ugly, and I’d rather there be land that housed a 
diversity of birds. But all the other non-fossil-fuel options seemed worse, so 
I get my electricity from a local solar array. At least my energy use is solar 
on a net basis. And I conserve, with a well-insulated house that doesn’t even 
connect to gas. My car uses fossil fuel, but it is very efficient, and I rarely 
use it. I bicycle and walk for local trips. My birding by car is limited. I 
drove to Troyer’s to see the spectacular Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, 
rationalizing that I may never go to its home in Texas, despite how attractive 
Texas birds are to me. Otherwise most of my limited car-birding is also 
car-pooling. It’s good to get to know the local neighborhood birds well. And to 
appreciate that traveling longer distances is a luxury with costs to the things 
we would travel for. Keep checking and eventually a rare or novel bird will 
come to you, like that Little Gull I found by the Red Lighthouse, or a new 
year-yard bird like the Eastern Kingbird that distracted me while I was writing 

- - Dave Nutter


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