Clean, renewable energy is coming to Maine in a big way. It is driven by necessity – we need substantial wind and solar generation, paired with energy storage, to help us shift away from our reliance on fossil fuels – as well as by opportunity. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes major incentives that will drive substantial renewable energy development here and around the country.

Electrician Zach Newton works on wiring solar panels at the 38-acre BNRG/Dirigo solar farm in Oxford on Jan. 14, 2021. The Nature Conservancy in Maine is working on a tool that identifies areas that are more or less suitable for solar energy development in order to help regulators and developers plan smarter projects. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

More clean energy is great news. Now we just need to figure out where to put it.

Deploying lots of clean energy responsibly in Maine will take careful thought and planning. As the Press Herald rightly noted in a recent editorial, “While a coal-fired power plant producing electricity for a region can fit on a city block, an equally productive solar array may require 10 square miles. Wind power, too, needs a lot of space” (Our View: You’re going to see a lot more solar panels in Maine, Sept. 21). Where we put all this new renewable energy is really important. If we’re not careful, we could easily end up undercutting the same goals we’re trying to achieve.

Two of the biggest threats facing human society and the planet today are biodiversity loss and the impacts of climate change. Traditionally, these threats have been considered separately, but they are deeply intertwined. Climate change actively worsens risks to biodiversity, while changes to natural habitats affect how we can adapt to climate change, as well as how much greenhouse gas we can sequester from the atmosphere.

Why is biodiversity so important? Among other things, keeping a diverse and thriving set of species in Maine – and protecting pathways for new species to migrate in – means that our environment will be more flexible and resilient in responding to future challenges. Biodiversity is vital to our agriculture, fisheries, forestry and recreation industries, all of which rely on strong, healthy ecosystems. With plant and animal species shifting an average of 11 miles north and 36 feet higher in elevation each decade, business as usual will no longer be enough to protect these species. If they’re going to survive, they need us to preserve connected habitat throughout Maine.

Our state is fortunate to have large areas of well-connected habitat today, but they are shrinking. If we aren’t intentional about where we site new projects, we run the risk of robbing Peter to pay Paul – cutting down forests that are vital habitat connectors in order to accommodate new renewable energy, inadvertently hurting our biodiversity and undermining our goal of producing a livable planet. The realities of climate change mean we must transition to renewables quickly – that doesn’t mean we can’t do it thoughtfully.

At The Nature Conservancy in Maine, we’ve been working on a tool to help achieve this. Using data on connected habitat blocks, it identifies areas that are more or less suitable for solar energy development to help regulators and developers plan smarter projects. Data-driven tools like this will be useful in the vigorous public discussions we need to have in the coming years about how to deploy much-needed renewables responsibly, and what habitat protection looks like in the era of climate change.

These same principles will be helpful in tackling other pressing issues in Maine, including our need for affordable housing. But right now, the economic conditions that are tending to drive renewable-energy development into productive forest and arable farmland require our immediate attention. If we don’t act soon, in a decade we may find ourselves looking back and wishing we’d rolled out these projects more thoughtfully.

Fortunately, this is Maine. We value nature and common sense, and we find solutions. Across the state, dedicated people and organizations are working collaboratively to chart a rapid, responsible path forward. With planning and care, we will be able to meet the moment – rapidly deploying critical clean-energy generation, protecting vital connected habitat and facing the climate crisis together.

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