New research out of the Carnegie Institute for Science has concluded that the amount of energy that could be generated from solar systems constructed on and around existing infrastructure in California is five times that currently demanded by the state.
In short, the study conclusively proves that it is possible to substantially increase the level of solar power delivering energy to California’s electricity grid without converting natural habitat or causing “adverse environmental impact,” and without also having to develop all solar installations to remote locations.
“As California works to meet requirements that 33 percent of retail electricity be provided by renewable sources by 2020 and that greenhouse-gas emissions be 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, our research can help policymakers, developers, and energy stakeholders make informed decisions,” said Chris Field, director of Carnegie’s Department of Global Ecology. “Furthermore, our findings have implications for other states and countries with similarly precious environmental resources and infrastructural constraints.”
“The deployment of renewable energy systems, such as solar energy, to achieve universal access to electricity, heat and transportation, and to mitigate climate change is arguably the most exigent challenge facing humans today,” write the authors of the report. “However, the goal of rapidly developing solar energy systems is complicated by land and environmental constraints, increasing uncertainty about the future of the global energy landscape.”
The research, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, analyzed the existing opportunity for small- and utility-scale systems to be installed within the existing developed areas of California. Beyond the existing opportunity, the report also highlighted several “potentially compatible” sites “that further augmented this potential.”
“Integrating solar facilities into the urban and suburban environment causes the least amount of land-cover change and the lowest environmental impact,” explained Rebecca R. Hernandez (once of Carnegie, now at University of California Berkeley). Such considerations are necessary given both the environmental consequences of building in environmentally fragile locations, as well as the metaphorical-heat that can be harnessed by critics of renewable energy, who claim that solar installations do as much harm as they claim to prevent.
The study identified residential and commercial rooftops as one of many possible locations for solar systems to be developed, as well as urban spaces such as parks, and undeveloped sites that are not ecologically sensitive or federally protected, such as degraded lands.
“Because of the value of locating solar power-generating operations near roads and existing transmission lines, our tool identifies potentially compatible sites that are not remote, showing that installations do not necessarily have to be located in deserts,” Hernandez explained.
Specifically, small- and utility-scale solar power could generate up to 15,000 terawatt hours of energy each year using traditional solar PV technology, and another 6,000 terawatt hours using concentrating solar power technology. Geographically, the study highlights approximately 6.7 million acres (or 27,286 square kilometers) of land that is compatible for solar PV construction, and another 1.6 million acres (6,274 square kilometers) compatible for concentrating solar. The study also classified an additional 13.8 million acres (55,733 square kilometers) that is “potentially compatible” for solar PV development with only “minimal environmental impact”, and 6.7 million acres (27,215 square kilometers) also “potentially compatible” for developing concentrating solar power systems.