Big vs Small Solar: Does Size Matter?

When we wrote our story, Small vs Large Solar, we thought we were alone in wondering why mammoth solar plants thatcover thousands of acres of desert habitat were being emphasized overdistributed solar that would cover the roofs of millions of buildings in the US.

But others are questioning this approach too. A Colorado group, SolarDone Right, has issued a report, "Wrong From the Start," which questions the Obama administration’s public lands solar policy and exploresdistributed energy alternatives as a much better way to mainstreamrenewable energy.

The Bureau of Land Management’s solar policy would open hundreds ofthousands of acres of public lands to industrial scale solar plants.

Solar Done Right asks federal agencies to include in its analysisconsideration of smaller projects such as photovoltaic solar arrays onthe rooftops of homes and businesses, over parking lots, onalready-disturbed lands and near transmission substations.

By doing this, the need for expensive new transmission lines would beeliminated and solar could blanket the US much more quickly. It wouldalso put the average person and business in the driver’s seat, makingthem self-sufficient power producers as Germany has done.

Despite the crucial importance of lowering carbon emissions, noscientific studies have examined the claim that these projects reducenet greenhouse emissions when construction, transmission, and disruption of carbon-sequestering ecosystems are taken into account.

Solar Done Right says: Habitat destruction threatens the diversity oflife on this planet. Renewable energy strategies that damage habitatonly make the problem worse. Distributed generation such as rooftopsolar is the faster, cheaper, cleaner and more effective way of meetingour energy needs in the next century.

With 253 million acres in BLM-managed lands alone, it may seem that thepublic lands, and their potential for use, are endless. Yet much of this area is already damaged or fragmented by mining, urban encroachment,oil and gas operations, livestock grazing, motorized recreation, andother uses. Large, contiguous areas that retain their ecologicalintegrity are increasingly rare: these are some of the areas mostacutely threatened by large-scale uses such as industrial solar.

There is a widely held misconception that point-of-use distributedrooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) is too expensive, too slow to implement, and inadequate to meet our renewable energy needs, and that remoteutility-scale solar power plants should be the centerpiece of ournation’s solar energy policy.

The California Energy Commission has said in assessments of variousutility-scale solar power projects that, although such projects willcause substantial and unmitigable harm to the environment, regulationsnormally restricting these impacts should be overridden in light of theurgency of reducing greenhouse gases and meeting California’s RenewablePortfolio Standard. Yet distributed PV can achieve the same objectivewithout the environmental harm and at lower cost.

Our deserts are irrigated by water that fell thousands of years ago,covered in vegetative assemblages that have been developing for longerthan recorded human history, and some of the individual plants in themare older than the oldest bristlecone pines. Once altered, those plantcommunities may never return to their original state even under optimalconditions. If the desert’s aquifers and vegetative communities areforever changed, the animal wildlife that has evolved dependence onlocal springs, plant habitat and edible vegetation will suffer. Giventhe permanent damage that would result from industrial energydevelopment in desert wildlands, it’s time we stopped calling suchdevelopment "renewable energy."

Industrial-scale solar power generation is economically feasible onlybecause recent policy has brought massive taxpayer-funded subsidies tothe table. Ironically, many of the names behind Big Solar that aretaking advantage of this policy are familiar from the realms of of BigOil (BP and Chevron) and big bailouts (Goldman Sachs and MorganStanley).

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club has called for large scale solar development in places where it will do the least harm – on disturbed land, such asabandoned agricultural lands and defunct mines – and on rooftops andparking lots. 

Here’s the report:


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