Phoenix, AZ – March 6, 2023 – Today, Ørsted, a leading clean energy company, announced a research grant to the ASU Foundation that will fund research focused on identifying the overlap between burrowing owl habitats and areas of high solar project potential in Arizona. The research performed by students in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts
at the ASU Polytechnic campus will help inform mitigation measures and habitat restoration opportunities when renewable energy developers are considering solar projects around this species.
Burrowing owls — the only species of owls in the world that nest and live in underground burrows — are abundant in southern Arizona, including metropolitan Phoenix. However, increased development of open desert and grassland has led to a loss of habitat, and burrowing owls have been labeled a “species of concern.” Once the most populous kinds of owl in the continental United States, burrowing owl populations have declined to less than one percent of what they were in the United States 150 years ago.
“It’s wonderful to see how the work that our faculty and students have been engaged in is leading to additional student research opportunities, like this new collaboration with Ørsted,” emphasized Joanna Grabski, dean of the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. “Career-connected learning and industry partnerships are at the heart of many of our degree programs in the college.”
In May 2021, in collaboration with Wild at Heart raptor rescue, ASU Polytechnic campus installed a successful burrowing owl habitat for owl pairs in need of translocation
due to development in other parts of the Phoenix area. Students helped assess the best sites to locate the habitat, helped construct it, and helped feed and maintain the owls as they settled into the new habitat. Over the last two years, several classes have been involved in restoring that habitat and studying the owls and their fledglings, through real-time observations and analysis of trail camera footage.
“Protection of biodiversity can coexist with the green energy that we need, just like burrowing owls coexist with prairie dog communities,” said Daniel Willard, regional biodiversity specialist at Ørsted. “We believe it’s important to prioritize the protection of wildlife and support for biodiversity while developing renewable energy projects. Partnerships like this one between Ørsted and Arizona State University are important to help us further understand the best ways to minimize risks to native species and help restore the habitat they need to thrive.”
Student researchers were selected for the project in February and will now begin collecting data to identify high-priority habitats for burrowing owls and other sensitive species as well as locations of high solar energy potential. These include areas that have level ground, have limited vegetation, are available for development, and are close to substations. This information will help energy companies further understand the location and extent of burrowing owl habitats when developing projects in Arizona.
“I’ve started putting together a plan to create a few different species distribution models to overlay with hotspot analysis of where solar farms would be most ideal,” said Kylee Fleckenstein, one of the students who will be working on the grant-funded project. “This modeling is exactly the kind of work I’d love to do when I graduate.”
To develop a clear benchmark for successful translocation, the researchers will compile a comprehensive list of techniques shown to be successful for burrowing owl translocations and identify how these vary geographically. Students will also identify renewable energy developers that have been successful in mitigating impacts on burrowing owls during construction and energy production phases and explore opportunities to protect and restore their habitat.
“Students will be stepping outside of theory and science and begin to see how connected many disciplines are to questions like these,“ said Assistant Teaching Professor Adam Stein, one of the faculty members overseeing student work on the project. “They’ll be thinking about biological principles and how novel solutions can be generated — and hopefully the work spurs the imagination of these students moving forward. We’re optimistic we can resolve our energy crisis without engaging in more of the biodiversity crisis,” he said.
Ørsted is currently constructing the Eleven Mile Solar Center in Pinal County, Arizona. In addition to utilizing its in-house expertise, Ørsted has partnered with the environmental consultant firm Western EcoSystems Technology (WEST) to avoid and minimize impacts to burrowing owls at the project. WEST and Ørsted have worked together to develop and implement a project-specific burrowing owl management plan, guided by state and federal protocols, that provides solutions for preventing burrowing owl impacts.