Sustainable Manufactured Solar Solutions Provide Water for Wildlife in Arizona
By Luke Murray and Ashley Babb, APR
The dry, hot desert landscape across Arizona can be as harsh as it is beautiful. Wildlife and ranch animals such as cattle don’t often have access to natural water resources. But now, with the help of wildlife experts in Arizona, conservationists and ranchers are teaming up to provide an innovative solution to address the environmental challenge.
They are investing in solar as a sustainable solution to ensure water access, especially during droughts.
Across the state of Arizona, conservationists are using energy from the sun to provide water for animals such as elk, deer, bears, turtles, coyotes, and bobcats.
According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the state has about 3,000 water features supporting wildlife. But how do you provide energy to these features to support the water they need to survive?
The Arizona Deer Association (ADA), a non-profit conservation organization along with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and other local and government agencies are using solar power to ensure the availability of water resources for not only wildlife but cattle ranchers too.
Over the years, ADA has made extensive efforts to help extract water from the ground. Some water well sites in the state rely on diesel gas generators for power, while sites without generators go dormant.
In the pursuit of a more sustainable approach, Jim Lawrence, the Projects Director for ADA began searching for a solution. Recognizing the need for a low-maintenance, yet powerful alternative to fossil fuels, the idea of transitioning well-power sources to solar emerged as a viable choice.
Lawrence and his team diligently sought the most affordable and reliable option for their solar conversion projects. He was referred to Ontility. Established in 2009, Ontility is TerrePower’s brand of comprehensive solar lifecycle solutions and energy storage systems. TerrePower is a division of BBB Industries. The sustainably manufactured panels were a perfect fit to help with sustainability and water goals. Remanufactured panels can cut carbon emissions by about 35% over original production.
In 2021, Lawrence bought his first panels. They have ordered 810 panels overall. They just received another order for 120 panels in early August. All the panels come from the Sparta, Tennessee manufacturing facility. The TerrePower facility became fully operational earlier this year.
“For years, we've been using sustainably manufactured panels to convert old, abandoned wells, or wells that were being powered by diesel generators, into solar,” said Lawrence. “The High Point Well on the O’Haco Ranch was one of these. The High Point Well supplies water to over 30 miles of pipeline, feeding into 35 drinker tanks for livestock and wildlife. Prior to the solar conversion, it had all been powered by a diesel generator. The first time I visited that site, there wasn't a blade of grass within 50 yards of the well due to the diesel fuel contaminating the area.”
Restoring the habitat around the well sites is important to Lawrence and the ADA, as they strive to make continued progress in their conservation endeavors. As for the ranchers, their property is their lifeblood, and keeping costs down is vital to maintaining their operations.
"With solar, it's just a win-win for everybody, the environment and the rancher,” said Lawrence. “The ranchers can convert to solar power and be done with it. There's very little maintenance involved with it. They don't have these $16,000, $18,000 fuel bills come up on a yearly basis.”
Sustainably manufactured panels can be a cost-effective solution over brand-new panels. The ADA receives over 90% of the funds to purchase the panels from fundraising efforts. Other funds come from grants and donations.
“It takes a concerted effort; everyone must work together. I sit on the Arizona Game & Fish Habitat Partnership Committee, where we spend about $3.2 million on habitat improvement projects per year on average. These solar conversion projects will pay for themselves within four years. We have some projects that were done five years ago that are already bought and paid for with what we would have spent just keeping those diesel generators going.”
In addition to being a cost-effective alternative to relying on fossil fuels, using renewable energy sources, like solar power, helps reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, reduces carbon emissions and positively impacts the environment and wildlife. For example, not only does the habitat immediately surrounding the well and solar site become more vibrant with vegetation after removing the negative impact of the diesel generator, but there is also a large snowball effect on how the deer population responds to these ecological improvements.
“Mule deer are very susceptible to stress,” said Lawrence. “Most mule deer females, after they become three years old, will normally produce twin fawns annually. But habitat conditions can cause stress. Then your fawn retention rate is terrible. Our fawn retention is under 20% statewide in Arizona, which means that of the fawns that were born each year, less than 20% of them survived to be a year old.”
Improved access to reliable water significantly reduces stress on the deer population, allowing them to thrive and wildlife researchers can see an immediate difference in the effect this has on fawn retention rates in areas where wells are supplying steady water to drink stations. Without access to these drinking stations, wildlife are forced to travel greater distances for water and risk prolonged exposure to predators—an implication one might not normally consider when thinking simply about water access.
“When you have your water spread out that far, your apex predators—mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats—they're going to hang out at those water holes because they know—sooner or later—someone is coming to drink,” Lawrence said. “When you have your water concentrated in smaller intervals, like a mile or mile and a half apart, the predatory risk for livestock and other wildlife drops way down. Plus, your habitat - the forage - the wildlife and livestock depend on that vegetation, which can sustain them in a much better fashion when your wells are within a mile’s radius of each other.”
At the end of the day, converting petroleum-powered sites to solar was a relatively easy decision for Lawrence.
“When you develop a site with solar, you hope you don't have to go back for a while because a lot of these locations are extremely remote,” said Lawrence. “Admittedly, I was a little concerned about that in the beginning when considering these modules, but once we saw the way they were cleaned and palletized, they looked brand new. We were super happy with the condition they arrived in, but the bottom line is, how do they perform? And so far, over the last several years now, we've had a 100% success rate with these sustainably manufactured modules. So, we're very happy.”
Through the successful transition to solar power, led by the ADA and supported by partnerships with organizations like TerrePower, the ADA is not only ensuring the well-being of regional wildlife and cattle but also contributing to the preservation of the unique desert ecosystem. The reuse of solar panels can further reduce carbon emissions by up to 35% compared to new panels. Renewable energy is the key to a sustainable future and projects like these in Arizona are an example of how it can be done.