Small Solar Vs. Big Solar
Environmentalists were the first renewableenergy advocates, but are now sometimes finding they have to make hardchoices – whether to support massive solar farms in the US desert at the expense of wildlife habitat.
Although there is certainly room for some large solar plants, we believe in general that "small is beautiful."
Small solar plants on the roofs of hundreds of thousands of homesand businesses – the way it’s been done so successfully in Germay -makes the most sense to us. It empowers individuals, small businesses as well as hospitals and large businesses to become energyself-sufficient. Germany’s feed-in laws – which offer a guranteed,higher price for solar energy for 20 years – also often provide anadditional income stream and are thus, very attractive.
With all the solar financing options available today, many withoutrequiring an upfront investment, why aren’t we pursuing small solar as a first option?
Arizona utility, Tucson Electric, is planning to lease rooftops onschools and other large public buildings over the next three years,adding up to 11 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar.
Its TEP Bright Roofs program will feed the solar energy into the grid, generating enough electricity to serve over 1,800 homes.
A high school with 200,000 square feet of roof space could host a 1 MWsystem that generates enough power to serve about 170 homes…. and itwill provide a much needed revenue stream for the school.
An article in Mother Jones says:
The warm December sun brings out the desert colors: green creosotebushes, fading red wildflowers, golden cholla cacti rearing theirprickly heads above the low scrub. To the north lie the Cady Mountains,where bighorn sheep move between peaks. Except for the chirping of a few birds-horned larks, loggerhead shrikes, mountain plovers, and Americanpipits – it’s quiet.
But not for long. Later this year, the desert will thrum with thepounding of backhoes, heavy trucks, and articulated haulers, rolling into transform the Mojave into the epicenter of America’s solarrevolution.
In 2009, President Obama announced that renewable energy projects launched before December 31, 2010, could qualify for millions of dollars of federal stimulus money, kicking offan unprecedented solar gold rush. (The deadline has since beenextended.) The California Energy Commission estimates that nine solarprojects it recently approved will generate over 4,000 megawatts ofpower – about 6% of the state’s grid capacity, up from less than 1%.
Across the country, environmentalists are finding themselves in theawkward position of having to choose between clean energy and wildlife:In the Midwest, wind farms ensnare bats and migrating birds, andhydropower dams in the Northwest decimate salmon spawning grounds."We’ve been supportive of efforts to accelerate clean energy projects,"says Jim Lyons, of Defenders of Wildlife. "But the scale of these newprojects is massive, and they could be enormously destructive to plantsand animals."
But so, of course, could global warming. In a recent study, Scott Loarie, an ecologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science,found that climate change is forcing ecoystems to creep northward byabout a quarter mile each year. That’s a problem, he says, since "only8% of our protected areas are big enough to allow animals to move northahead of climate change."
The trick, Loarie says, is to figure out how to build renewable energyprojects while inflicting minimal damage on the landscape. Under thefederal Endangered Species Act, energy companies are required toestimate how many animals will be displaced by a project, and to develop a mitigation plan. This sometimes means moving animals to another tract of land – think of it as a wildlife refugee camp.
In practice, this doesn’t always work. Desert tortoises, the crotchetyold farts of the animal kingdom, spend their entire lives within a fewmiles of their birthplace. If you pick them up and move them, they willpromptly freak out and dehydrate themselves by peeing out severalmonths’ worth of stored water.
And since tortoises rarely leave their burrows during the winter andsummer, they’re notoriously hard to count. Solar companies’ censusmethods don’t always catch every animal. In one case, a company countedtortoises on a site it wanted in California’s Ivanpah Valley – but after the project was approved, another study found 35% more. Despite theevidence of imprecise census work, major green groups chose not to sueover the project. No one wants to look like they’re against renewableenergy, explains Gloria Smith, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.
Of course, solar projects needn’t destroy pristine landscapes at all. Ivisited one future plant site where farming had long ago scared offtortoises and other sensitive species. And consider that just outsidethe Mojave lie acres upon acres of flat, sunny spaces where the tortoise count is guaranteed to be zero: the roofs of warehouses and big-boxstores. The idea has taken off elsewhere; in Germany, wheresolar installations have proceeded at eight times the US rate, hundredsof thousands of individuals and companies now sell their excesselectricity back to the power authority.
But here in the US, where public land can be rented for a song, it’smore cost-effective for utilities to build a massive power plant out inthe desert than hundreds of little ones atop privately owned roofs. Andutilities usually aren’t keen on the idea of buying electricity fromtheir customers, says Bill Powers, a solar in San Diego.
"Utilities make money off power plants; they’d lose money if big-boxstores started making their power on the roof," he says. To wit, the New Mexico utility PNM waged an unsucessful battle in 2009 to preventresidents and businesses from installing rooftop panels and selling theelectricity they didn’t need back into the grid. The same year, XcelEnergy fought and lost a similar battle in Colorado.
In the coming years, you’re likely to hear a lot of this kind ofargument: What are a few tortoises (or bats, or salmon) compared withthousands of megawatts of renewable energy? But the individual creatures are only part of the point, says Anderson. "In protecting thetortoise," she says, "you end up protecting the entire ecosystem." Doing that right will require cooperation between conservation groups,governments, utilities, and energy companies – not to mention plenty ofbiological grunt work.
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