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.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Kevin Smith

While the support for renewable energy is appreciated, the notion that renewable energy requires "20 to 30 times the amount" as convetional fueled projects is just not correct. See link below, which is just one position, but certainly the lands required for mining coal and nuclear fuel need to be included, which makes it a push. In additon, coal and nuclear facilities usually have signficiant buffer zones due to safety and pollution issues. To power the entire US on solar would take about 10% of the area of the state of Nevada, which is 85% federal lands and largely unihabited.

http://www.grist.org/article/2010-11-17-which-has-bigger-footprint-coal-plant-or-solar-farm

Carl Zichella

Actually, though presented as contrasts, these points of view are perfectly compatible. Relying on zones, or guided development as we refer to it at NRDC, is a way to identify the most easily developable solar sites. Time is of the essence when addressing climate change. We cannot waste time by locating projects in problemmatical places when hundreds of thousands of acres, capable of generating more power than we could design transmission for, can be made available in places with many fewer environmental conflicts. Permitting uncertainty is a major obstacle to project financing. Guided development reduces uncertainty and is a way to both protect biologically important places and get us more solar energy, faster, and equally important, allow us to sensibly design the transmission we need to get the power to market in an efficient and timely way.

Resourceguy

No wonder solar is such a small fraction of the power grid with misguided drivel from the debaters and the mush comments like Carl's. Let's just review all the missteps in solar policy and development, shall we. 1) multi-year approval processes that was only faintly recognized with some BLM land pre-qualification study announced only now in 2011, 2) treating solar like some remote resource like wind or geothermal only to question the cost of transmission and efficiency loss over long distances as some afterthought if at all, 3) lack of recognition of the sector leaders in favor of the mixed bag of also-rans that comprised the sector average up until now with wasted federal resources all along the way, 4) land use of the projects fall as efficiencies rise, especially with such long permit times involved. It does make one wonder why there is not more coordinated complaint of pathetic public policy implementation and lack of execution. After all, we are talking about permit processes that take longer than the actual project implementation times, again as benchmarked against the sector leaders and not the skewed sector average. This is quiet, clean, cost competitive solar we are talking about in the permit process, not some nuclear cost overrun game or underperforming geothermal plants run by former political hacks milking stimulus funds. Chuck the generalities and get with the program facts or move on to some other armchair amateur debate.

James

Kevin Smith's comment above is combining two industries into one for the purpose of trying to make existing power plants look worse. If you want to take into account the mining operations that supply the fuel for coal, gas, or nuclear plants then you must also take the manufacturing of plastics into account for the solar industry. How much dirty oil goes into the production of plastics? How much air is polluted? How much gas and oil goes into the construction of those environmentally friendly solar fields? Compare apples to apples ond oranges to oranges!

I'm not saying we shouldn't develop solar or other clean energies... but think about everything if you're going to compare it to everything about using the existing power plants and power plant technology.

Don't forget about transmission.

econobiker

Come on, just force replacement of standard home roofing with solar panels. Flying into summertime hot Dallas, Tex., you see miles and miles of dark home roofs. How could the energy being soaked by those roofs not be usable for solar power? Even just installing heat exchangers for home hot water systems on the roofs or in the attics would alone save millions of dollars a year in energy costs.

There is currently a company that is doing this exact thing for several major US military bases' married housing areas and making a profit by selling the energy back.

Annegrethe Jakobsen

Debate Room Idea: The US should continue to support advanced biofuels, e.g. biofuel from agricultural residues. It's so close to commercialization now and starting to enter the point where it can provide, tons of jobs, energy security, economic growth and GHG savings (see recent study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance: http://www.novozymes.com/en/about-us/biobased-economy/white-papers-on-biofuel2/Pages/next-generation-ethanol-economy.aspx). Not following it through would be a total waste of the money spend so far - and that's tax payers money.

The MaD HaCkER

You are both right, it has taken 30 years for one nuke plant to break ground in south Carolina and how much time and money until it comes online only god knows. We have plenty of land but the government will not let us use it, Or more to the point a small band of echofreeks are able to stop anything by buying off the congresscritter of the day.

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