Saturday, September 15, 2012

Solar Trends Show Wildlands Sacrifice is Not Necessary

Solar energy is a rapidly growing piece of the energy pie necessary to kick our habit of dirty fossil fuels, but trends in solar energy growth so far, and an abundance of suitable spaces for solar panels in our cities and on already-disturbed lands suggests there is no need to sacrifice our open wildlands.   

Making Progress Without Desert Destruction
Solar energy generation has grown to over 5,100 megawatts in the United States according to GTM research -- enough to replace roughly nine Reid Gardner coal power plants. How did we reach this goal?  A good chunk is from rooftop solar, while most of the larger solar facilities contributing to this number were built on already-disturbed lands.  Most utility-scale projects that are destroying desert wildlands, such as BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project, are not included in this number because they are not yet plugged into the grid.

Looking to Already-Disturbed Lands
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency made a mapping tool available that identifies already-disturbed lands suitable for renewable energy development.  The EPA lists about 11,000 sites in California, but these are just the places considered Superfund, brownfield or mine sites.  But many other lands could also prove more suitable for utility-scale solar energy development, such as former agricultural lands that are no longer productive.  Developers should still respect local zoning rules and control fugitive dust (a health hazard and blight),  but the potential impacts on wildlife and treasured public lands are greatly reduced when projects are built on already-disturbed lands.  Companies like 8minuteenergy and SunPower are proving that keeping energy facilities off of wildlands is practical and profitable, including a project  slated to provide clean energy at a price lower than the "Market Price Referent," according to KCET's ReWire.

A SunPower solar facility expected to generate up to 136 MW of solar energy would be sited on non-prime agricultural land (mapped above) in Lemoore, California, not far from a couple of other proposed large solar projects on already-disturbed lands

Vast Potential in our Cities
Closer to home, third-party rooftop solar leasing is booming, allowing middle income neighborhoods to generate clean energy, create jobs and invest right in their communities, and not hundreds of miles away.   California has over 1,300 megawatts of rooftop solar installed, and the capacity for thousands more, according to a UCLA study. The largest rooftop solar installation in the US was installed on a Whirlpool company warehouse in Perris, California, totalling 10 megawatts of clean energy, while grassroots activists are pushing for legislation that would make local solar even more accessible.

One of the criticisms of renewable energy is that a cloud passing over a utility-scale solar facility or the lack of wind at a large wind facility makes them an unreliable or intermittent supplier, whereas utility companies need a steady and predictable flow of energy into the grid.  If thousands of rooftops across a region or state have solar panels, however, their is not as dramatic of a change to the energy supply with weather conditions.

Solar panels adorn a public works building in Ohio, generating clean energy during peak demand hours.
The Department of Energy also released figures indicating that we could make our homes and businesses much more energy efficient, cutting national energy usage by as much as 261,107 gigawatt hours (GWh), or the equivalent of 241 destructive BrightSource Energy Ivanpah Solar projects.

Let's Give Wildlands a Break
While the industry expects wide access to public wildlands for large scale facilities, and some pro-industry "think tanks" are supporting this voracious appetite for more ecological destruction, at least some conservation groups are expressing concern that we should be prioritizing rooftop solar and facilities on already-disturbed lands.
  • Western Lands Project, Basin and Range Watch, and Solar Done Right filed a protest against the Department of Interior's Solar Energy Development program that would  open up hundreds of square miles of ecologically intact public lands to the solar industry.  The groups point out that the Department of Interior failed to analyze a distributed generation (i.e. rooftop solar) alternative.
  • Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Defenders of Wildlife also filed protests, expressing concern that some aspects of the Solar Energy Development program failed to keep the industry away more ecologically sensitive areas of desert wildlands.  The Solar Energy Development program established solar energy zones where permitting for solar facilities would be expedited, but would still give companies wide access to other desert lands outside of the zones.


  1. Wouldn't it be great if rooftop was the 1st alternative and the 2nd was already disturbed land in order to preserve our grid-free vistas. I hope that this is the start of a trend.

  2. Way to go - a great article that's clear, focused, insightful and on the mark. Thank you!