The Carnegie study found that of the 161 planned or operating utility-scale solar power developments in California, more than half have been or will be built on natural shrub and scrublands totaling about 145 square miles of land, roughly the land area of the city of Bakersfield, Calif. About 28 percent have been built on agricultural land and 15 percent have been built in developed areas.
Hernandez said she was surprised to find that nearly a third of solar development is occurring on former cropland, perhaps because farmers are shifting from growing crops to using their land to generate electricity. California’s devastating drought may be responsible for farmers’ shift to solar, something one of the study’s co-authors is researching in more depth.
“We see that ‘big solar’ is competing for space with natural areas,” she said. “We were surprised to find that solar energy development is a potential driver of the loss of California’s natural ecosystems and reductions in the integrity of our state and national park system.”
Finding ways to resolve conflicts between renewable energy development and ecosystem protection may be critical if the U.S. is to rely on more solar power to displace fossil energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are caveats to that, however: Though a 2050 greenhouse gas reduction goal has been adopted in California, the Obama administration’s current goal for the U.S. is to cut emissions by up to 28 percent below 2005 levels within 10 years. The study also does not account for increasing solar panel efficiency over time, something that is likely to reduce the amount of land needed to generate a megawatt of solar electricity.
Just as important in reducing the ecological footprint of solar power is the expected growth of rooftop solar, which allows homeowners to generate electricity on site, reducing the demand on utilities’ solar power installations, she said.
Source: Scientific American
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