In Amherst, Massachusetts, neighbors Janet McGowan and Steven Roof share many similarities. They both live in old houses surrounded by farmland and trees. They are both deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on people and ecosystems. However, they hold different views on how their community should approach solar power projects.

Amherst is in the process of drafting bylaws to regulate the location of solar projects in the town. McGowan, a mediator and lawyer involved in the process, has concerns about converting farmland and forests into solar facilities. Although she supports renewable energy, she finds it counterintuitive to cut down forests for solar panels.

On the other hand, Roof, a professor of earth and environmental science, emphasizes the urgency of addressing climate change and switching to renewable energy sources. He worries that excessive regulations to protect farmland and forests might hinder the town’s efforts in reducing emissions.

The debate over solar projects in Amherst mirrors similar conflicts across the United States. Even among environmentalists, disagreements arise regarding the trade-offs between conserving natural habitats and embracing renewable energy projects.

Although we should do everything in our power to protect wildlife habitats, new solar projects are more important. Here’s why.

Solar Must Come First

In Amherst, proposals for large solar projects have encountered opposition due to concerns about habitat disruption. For instance, in 2016, plans to build a solar array on a landfill were abandoned due to the discovery that the area was home to an endangered bird.

Conservationists want to ensure that new solar installations are built on rooftops and in parking lots. However, this is unrealistic. Residential solar projects are up to 70% more expensive to install and operate than ground-based solar farms. Furthermore, roofs and parking lots simply do not provide enough space to generate the amount of solar energy needed for carbon neutrality.

Moreover, protecting land does not guarantee that endangered wildlife populations will go up.

All energy generation requires land. If folks drag their feet on solar power generation in the name of protecting wildlife, all that will happen is that more land will be devoted to high-emission energy sources like oil and coal.