As Renewable Energy Blossoms, Photo Ark Spotlights Wildlife Conservation

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No form of energy development is impact-free, and renewable energy advocates are — or should be — especially sensitive to impacts on wildlife. After all, decarbonization is more than a switch from fossils to renewables. It’s a chance to get energy right, in a more holistic and sustainable framework. With that in mind, let’s preview the upcoming TV special Photo Ark, unspooling in two parts on Nat Geo WILD on October 17 and 24 at 10/9c.

renewable energy wildlife conservation
The Photo Ark project spotlights species at risk and underscores the importance of getting renewable energy right (photo credit: Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark).

Photo Ark & Wildlife Conservation

Photo Ark is a documentary about a National Geographic project called Photo Ark, which is the brainchild of photographer Joel Sartore. The idea is to inspire action on wildlife conservation by creating a stunning collection of photos depicting every species currently residing in a zoo or sanctuary — insects, fish, birds, mammals and all.

Mr. Sartore has passed the 10,000 photo mark. CleanTechnica had a chance to catch up with him earlier this week by phone, and learned that one of the big challenges is inspiring empathy for creatures without eyes (following comments are edited for clarity and flow).

“We humans are primates and we respond to eye contact. Animals with eyes all get a good reaction, especially primates. Animals that don’t register as much are some of the insects, corals, and so on,” said Mr. Sartore. “By and large, people really respond to looking other animals in the eye.”

As described by Sartore, eye contact is the gateway to wonder and appreciation. After all, each of these creatures has learned how to survive outdoors, 24/7/365, with nothing on but their natural skin of one kind or another, a feat that no genius has figured out how to transfer onto humankind.

That sense of wonder and appreciation is reflected in Sartore’s science-based approach to his subjects, one example being the Arctic ground squirrel.

“Ground squirrels go into a torpor and super cool their blood. They can heal themselves in their sleep, and they can sleep for eight months straight. They could reveal all kinds of beneficial things,” he explained. “For the Arctic ground squirrel we photographed a couple hibernating. When you look at them they don’t have a lot of sex appeal — they look like brown puffballs — but when you start explaining the science they’re amazing.”

“You have to appeal to the rational side of the brain,” he added.

Inspiring Action That Leads To Success

Sartore doesn’t have a favorite animal, but he does have favorite stories. Those are the ones that raise awareness about a species under threat, leading to action.

“What’s my favorite animal? It’s the next one, we care about every one,” he said, “Especially the ones that are critically endangered but we’ve never met them, we’ve never told their story.”

“How about the Florida grasshopper sparrow? It’s an animal that is super rare, lives in central Florida, and was risking extinction,” he continued. “We did a profile in Audubon Magazine and it got attention from the Fish and Wildlife Service. They decided to fund a captive breeding program to save the bird. That’s a good example of good publicity, done the right way, at the right time.”

“I get excited about the fact that we can save species, that we can let everyone know about this, and get them motivated to know about and save species,” he added.

The Renewable Energy Angle

Sartore is among those who see the renewable energy transition as inevitable. He framed the fossils-to-renewables transition as one of both economics and sustainability.

From his perspective as a world traveler, the globalization of renewable energy means the ability to move around without depending on fossils. For now, people who have access to renewable energy at home are still at the mercy of fossil fuels every time they step (or drive) off their property.

“Burning fossil fuels to move around will be obsolete. We’ll be on electric everything,” Sartore said. “We have got to figure out a way to keep from cooking ourselves, and green is a money maker — green jobs, green infrastructure — so there is a lot of money to be made, and I’m encouraged that we’re headed that way.”

“Take hotels for example, they finally caught on that being green makes them money,” he said. “If you don’t have a maid to come in to make up your room every day, to change towels, sheets, and soap every day, that used to be looked down upon.”

Renewable Energy & Agriculture

Naturally the conversation turned to the COVID-19 outbreak, and Sartore noted that his travels have been confined to the area around his home in the Great Plains, where he has taken advantage of the lull to photograph 800 insects (and counting), along with freshwater aquatic species.

The exercise has turned into a celebration of the Great Plains, and Sartore folds it into a story on the role of backyard action on wildlife conservation.

“If we can engage people through character driven narratives and tell them stories and keep it interesting and keep it entertaining, we’ll be able to compete and get people to pay attention, and when they pay attention they do great things,” he concluded. “The parting message: plant a pollinator garden, don’t use chemicals in your yard, insulate your house and tell others — it starts in your own backyard.

That circles right back around to the idea of getting energy right this time.

There is still a long row to hoe, but one early trend to emerge is the re-use of brownfields and other pre-developed infrastructure for utility scale wind and solar development.

On the smaller end of the scale, rooftop solar panels and distributed wind energy provide additional opportunities to generate renewable energy without taking habitat out of circulation.

The use of existing farmland also falls into the category of developing renewable energy without impinging on native habitat, though it brings up potential conflicts with global food supply.

The large footprint of utility-scale solar arrays is of particular concern. In that regard, one ray of optimistic sunlight is the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which involves a two-way street of benefits for renewable energy, food supply, and habitat conservation.

Researchers are accumulating evidence that pollinator habitats can thrive under solar panels, while contributing to a cooler micro-climate that enables solar cells to convert sunlight to electricity more efficiently.

Grazing livestock is another focus of agrivoltaic activity, and attention is now turning to the feasibility of growing human-edible crops as well.

If you’re thinking regenerative agriculture comes into play here, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Regenerative agriculture refers to practices that conserve and improve soil. The shade cast by solar panels can help in that regard, by reducing evaporation and wind impacts.

On a more long term note, the income from a solar array can make it possible to rest a field for years, enabling the next generation of farmers to enjoy better quality soil.

Circling back around to the message of Photo Ark, humans hold the key to survival in their hot little hands. Now is the time to step it up, and this time around energy has the potential to help, not hurt.

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Photo: Tiger Nudibranch, Armina tigrina, photographed at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab (credit Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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