It’s exciting to see a bit of momentum for decarbonizing our electric generation to meet the challenge of climate change. The push to decarbonize is not coming just from consumers, it’s coming from everywhere — utilities, states, municipalities, corporations, Wall Street, and the federal government. All this puts a new premium on power sources that don’t pollute. It seems reasonable that renewables are likely to be the most significant and affordable way to handle an energy transition. The technology is in place. But it’s also good to remember that every source of energy has its own set of challenges and benefits. For example, are there environmental trade-offs for ramping up solar development? Will solar occupy more land area than fossil fuels? “Of all the potential options, there is nothing less impactful on the environment than putting in a solar farm,” says Neal Lewis, Director of the Sustainability Institute Director, a Long Island, New York environmental advocacy group.
Today, solar initially requires more land than fuels. But in fact, solar reduces more carbon emissions over time than a forest of comparable land area. We can measure what a forest conserves in carbon and compare that to the emissions reduction from a solar project. The carbon emissions we avoid by using electricity from solar farms rather than using coal or natural gas is greater than the loss of carbon sequestered by the soil, trees, and other woody biomass. And because panels sit on the surface and much of the panel materials can be recycled, land reclamation will be more manageable than land used for oil or gas wells, coal, uranium mines or conventional power plants. Natural gas enjoys one of the smaller footprints for generating electricity but extracting and burning it releases methane, CO2, NOx, and contaminates groundwater. In addition, solar’s footprint will continue to shrink with the acceleration of technological developments that improve solar efficiency.
In comparison, fossil-fuel-based electricity generation does more than emit carbon that endangers the health of the planet. It pollutes air and water in ways that also endangers our health. The land uses associated with fossil fuels are equally concerning. They include resource extraction (coal mining, water extraction), infrastructure (refineries, pipelines, fuel storage tanks, transmission lines) and energy conversion (power plants). In a study of renewable energy impacts in the western United States, scientists found that active oil and gas leases disturbed 4.5 percent of each ecosystem they evaluated (with a potential impact of 11%). The equivalent potential impact from utility-scale solar, for example, amounts to less than 1 percent. Taking all these things into a balanced consideration shows how solar stacks up against traditional methods for generating electricity.
So, how should we evaluate the land use of solar? In theory, about 21,250 square miles of solar panels (with today’s technology) could generate all the electricity the nation consumes in a year. If this seems like a lot of land, let’s put it in perspective. That’s about half the land leased in the U.S. by the oil and gas industry, according to Bill Nussey, author of Freeing Energy. If solar energy alone supplied 100 percent of America’s electricity needs, solar installations would occupy only 0.6 percent of the nation’s total land area. That’s about the same amount of land for all U.S. roadways or less than 2 percent of U.S. land now in crop production.
Developing a solar farm means that vegetation will be cleared, and land will be graded, like preparing land for a housing development. In fact, many large tracts of land for sale that are perfect for solar farms are zoned residential. When a landowner wants to develop a property or sell to a developer, something will be developed on that land regardless. If it’s not a solar energy project, trees would still be cut to make room for homes. Environmentally, solar panels are a better option than houses because residential developments add to burdens on water resources and sewage treatment.
Of course, solar energy does not pollute air or land. It uses no moving parts, operates quietly with little noise, has no harmful emissions, and requires little maintenance. There is a small upfront cost to the environment in the production of PV panels, but solar offers clean energy throughout its lifespan. Whereas all fossil fuel production causes environmental impacts which last longer than solar energy impacts. So, if our future depends on eliminating as much fossil fuel energy as we can, solar farms are indeed one of the best ways to minimize the impact of electricity generation. Joining a community solar farm is a way to engage in the coming energy transition. The best part about it is that nearly anyone with an electric bill can join a solar farm.
Joining an Ampion community solar project means that you are helping advance the development of local renewable energy as well as saving on your electricity bills while getting the same reliability you enjoy now.