Utility-Scale Solar’s Impact On The Land

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Originally published on the ECOreport

The joint study from Stanford University and UC Riverside reads like a report card. The authors recognized that “solar energy has one of the greatest climate change mitigation potentials” of all renewable energy sources. It can play a leading role in helping the United States reach its goal of reducing emissions to 80% of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This would require covering a great deal of land surface. Rebecca R. Hernandez et al examined more than 160 sites in California to determine utility-scale solar’s impact on the land.


U.S. Policy is the Reverse of Europe’s

The report found much that needs to be changed.

Current regulations and policies “deemphasized” solar development “within the built environment and near population centers in favor of development within shrublands and scrublands.”

This is the reverse of the situation in Europe. In Germany, for example, 90% of the solar installations are in developed lands. An Italian study found that 2/3 of US installations are in “environmentally unsuitable” lands “with adverse implications for land cover change-related CO2 emissions.”


Incompatible Installations

“A large portion” of the “incapable” Californian  installations they studied are “sited far from existing transmission infrastructure.” This is both expensive and “difficult to site due to social and environmental concerns.”


” … Development decisions may overlook environmental resources unprotected by policies but valued by interest groups [e.g., important bird areas, essential connectivity areas, vulnerability of caliche (i.e., mineralized carbon) in desert soils, biodiversity hot spots, percent habitat loss].”

Scrublands contain “diverse recreational opportunities, culturally and historically significant landscapes, movement corridors for wildlife, groundwater as a drinking source, and carbon (sequestration) …”

These are “biologically rich” areas,  “known for high levels of species richness,” which have already lost “70% or more of the original extent of vegetation … due to global environmental change-type threats, including land cover change.”

In addition to sites on scrubland and shrubland, almost a third of the installations were on agricultural land where, “The growing demand for food, affordable housing, water, and electricity puts considerable pressure on available land resources, making recent land use decisions in this region a noteworthy case study for understanding the food– energy–water nexus that should be explored.”


Compatible Installations

Hernandez et al also found that there are many “compatible” utility-scale solar installations in California. They range between 20 MW and 200 MW in capacity and, aside from the much publicized facility in Yolo County, are “located within the Central Valley and inland southern California regions.”

Though the report does not specifically mention brownfield areas, the EPA previously identified over 10,000 U.S. sites with the potential to install a 300-kilowatt solar array or greater. These are contaminated areas where there would be no environmental damage and presumably few conflicts with local residents.

Hernandez et al did recommend urban solar:

“Siting USSE installations in places already impacted by humans (e.g., parking lots, rooftops) reduces the likelihood that adverse environmental impacts will occur and can exceed generation demands for renewable energy goals in places with moderate- to high-quality solar resources, including California.”

PV solar installations within developed areas “could meet California’s total energy demand 4.8 … times over …”  Concentrated Solar Power could produce 2.7 times the state’s needs.

Photo Credits: Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) from Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); Fig. 2. Number of photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) installations (planned, under construction, operating) by land cover type in California; represented in order of most installations to least for both technologies. – Solar energy development impacts on land cover change and protected areas, Rebecca R. Hernandez et al; Ivanpah electric power generation station by Bill & Vicki T via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License); Example of a Compatible Installation from Yolo County, Courtesy Yolo County General Services

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Roy L Hales

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the Cortes Currents (formerly the ECOreport), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of British Columbia. He is a research junkie who has written over 2,000 articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

Roy L Hales has 441 posts and counting. See all posts by Roy L Hales