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Can massive solar power expansion regenerate the US’s iconic prairies?

Renewable energy development is transforming the US countryside. It could be a chance to restore the iconic prairies if rural opposition can be overcome

By James Dinneen

12 September 2023

Flowers in a prairie field with mountains in the background

Tony Bynum

A THIRD of North America was once an ocean of grass stretching from what is now central Canada to Mexico. Today, almost all of that original habitat, called prairie, is gone, ploughed for agriculture, paved over for cities and roads, or taken over by encroaching trees and shrubs. Most native prairie remnants are unmarked and hidden to the untrained eye – at least until the spring bloom reveals what grows there.

So, it was a surprise for Danish energy company Ørsted to learn that the field in which it planned to build a giant solar facility was among the largest areas of intact prairie left in Texas. It was also a “wake-up call” for conservationists, says Kirsti Harms at the Native Prairies Association of Texas. “Suddenly there are thousands of acres going into these solar projects.” Unlikely as it seems, this could be good for both clean energy and biodiversity.

Rapid development of renewable energy facilities, such as solar farms and wind turbines, is necessary to cut greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change. But the industry’s demand for rural land – what Shannon Eddy, director of the Large-scale Solar Association, calls “the biggest shift in land-use patterns in modern history” – has generated intense opposition among local communities across the US. Amid this, researchers and some developers, including Ørsted, are looking for ways to make facilities that bring benefits not only to rural populations but landscapes too.

The one that has perhaps gained most traction is the idea that solar development can restore lost habitat if native flora is planted beneath panels, supporting birds and insects and improving the …

Article amended on 12 September 2023

We corrected a quote that had been misattributed

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