Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Where the Wild Things Are

If it’s built in rural Florida, there will be wildlife roaming about. In Southwest Florida, an FPL motion-activated wildlife camera in Hendry County has captured Florida panthers traversing a fenced solar plant. “The cameras have observed thousands of animals — including panthers, bears, deer, rabbits, raccoons, bobcats, coyotes, caracaras, sandhill cranes, herons, egrets and more,” says FPL spokesperson Jack Eble.

FPL points to the images as evidence its solar plants and specially constructed, wildlife-friendly fencing don’t interfere with the state’s fragile ecosystem.

A 2022 study by Florida Atlantic University scientists, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, warned solar plants could push animals like the Florida panther into less favorable environments or cut them off from habitat by degrading the natural corridors they travel. The study focused on the panther because it’s an endangered species and also an umbrella species — meaning what’s good for it is good for other species. “In Florida, we’re seeing a rapid increase in putting these solar facilities out in the landscape,” says the paper’s co-author, Scott H. Markwith, a professor in FAU’s geosciences department. “With everything, there’s some kind of tradeoff.”

The only breeding population of endangered Florida panther is restricted to a little more than 5% of its historic range in South Florida. Maturing panthers need corridors for when they leave the territory where they were born and set out to claim their own. Male panthers need about 200 square miles, and the survivability of the species relies on their ability to move between protected areas through wildlife corridors. Most of the facilities studied had 6-foot, chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, though some had wildlife-friendly, 6-foot split rail fences with mesh or even smaller fences and double fences. Fencing can disrupt migration, restrict ranges and cause injury or death, the researchers say.

Both Duke and TECO say that, like FPL, they are environmentally friendly, citing examples like using vegetation at sites that’s good for pollinators. In addition to their solar fields not generating carbon, utilities say solar plants offer other environmental benefits. Since the solar arrays have no staff onsite and are remotely operated, the facilities generate no regular vehicular traffic. They also don’t need water to operate. TECO’s conversion of agriculture land to solar plants has saved more than 4.3 billion gallons of water, the utility says. Duke, meanwhile, points to its repurposing of mining land for a solar plant.