Solar Energy Plants Deserve More U.S. Land
The U.S. should appropriate more federal lands for building solar power plants. Pro or con?
Pro: Look at the Big Picture
To transform solar energy into a major player on the energy stage will take a lot of land. Solar power plants require 20 to 30 times the amount of land as coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants to generate the same number of kilowatt hours. Solar energy now contributes a paltry 0.02 percent of the nation’s electricity. It will take hundreds of thousands of acres of land to raise this percentage significantly.
Some land can come from placing photovoltaic panels on existing rooftops, fallowing agricultural fields, and redeploying degraded public lands, such as old landfills. But that’s still not enough space.
That’s where the U.S. Bureau of Land Management comes in. It manages 264 million acres in 12 Western states—land with lots of sunshine. Much of it consists of scrub desert that provides only marginal habitat for plants and animals. BLM should permit solar plants on low-value areas adjacent to Interstate highways, bisected by high-voltage transmission lines and disturbed by decades of cattle grazing and off-road vehicles.
Concern over protecting a small number of important species, especially the threatened desert tortoise, has prompted environmental organizations and local citizen groups to oppose every attempt to put solar plants on BLM land. This opposition is understandable but short-sighted, given the potential consequences of global climate change. Proposals for solar plant sites pose a stark choice: Should we save some marginal habitat of a few species or save the planet?
Con: Too Many Unfinished Projects
While a massive ramp-up of renewable energy projects is needed, more than enough land is already available. The greatest obstacle to getting more large-scale solar projects constructed is not that too little public land is available, but too much.
Over the past few years, dozens of solar projects have been proposed on tens of thousands of acres of public lands managed by the U.S. Interior Dept. Many of these have been opposed by conservation groups, sometimes leading to lengthy project delays.
Rather than steer solar projects to areas where the impact on endangered species and other sensitive resources would be minimal, the Interior Dept. gave momentum to a dynamic in which solar companies would apply for permits to build projects on sites that had good features from an engineering standpoint (such as slope and nearby transmission) but which sometimes also had important biological values (such as desert tortoises). This has resulted in numerous conflicts between conservation groups and solar companies that could easily have been avoided if Interior had placed sensitive habitats off-limits from the start.
Fortunately, Interior is moving in the right direction. In October 2011, the department proposed to designate 17 solar energy zones in six Western states. While Interior’s plan is far from perfect, the zones, totaling 285,000 acres, generally are areas where effects on sensitive environmental resources, and consequently conflict over development proposals, are likely to be lowest.
If we are to address global warming meaningfully, the rapid deployment of solar projects is an essential component of our energy future. But important habitats and wild areas need not be sacrificed to build them.