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Solar Projects on Public Lands: Pros & Cons

Posted by Margaret Collins In Tuesday, March 30 2010 under: solar development, Solar Power Info, desert, Utility Solar

Recently, a Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) poll asked 500 Americans if they support solar energy development on public lands. 75 percent of respondents said yes, yes they do. The poll excluded from consideration lands that are already earmarked as national parks or nature preserves. What these results indicate is that Americans see the necessity for developing domestic clean energy resources, and believe that solar farms on large tracts of uninhabited, sunny land makes good business sense.

Looking at the numbers can be sobering: in 2008, we imported 57 percent of our petroleum, although we were the third largest crude oil producer in the world (EIA), and while our consumption and petroleum imports continue to rise, our production has been steadily decreasing over time. Turning to domestic renewable energy production is one piece of the energy puzzle moving forward. Solar farms, with their scalable technology and predictable output, are an increasingly attractive investment for energy producers.

But not everyone agrees that using public lands for solar is a good idea, as we've discussed before on this blog. If SEIA had taken a wider population sample, they may have discovered that many people object to solar development on public lands because much of the land in question is desert area in the west and southwest: perhaps counter-intuitively, deserts present one of the most delicate natural ecosystems in the country. Conservationists argue that protecting native wildlife and water resources should come first. One project in the spotlight has been BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave--conservationists got the developer to scale back the project significantly.

Yet this country has energy needs to meet, and quickly. We're already making great use of wind and hydroelectric power, and those sectors will also continue to grow. But truly large-scale solar is in some ways in its infancy, and finding large enough tracts of privately held land that are suitable for solar development isn't easy. So, what do you think? Here are the essential pros and cons of developing solar energy projects on public land.

CONS

  • Nearby residents don’t like the aesthetics
  • May endanger delicate ecosystems
  • Relatively inefficient per acre vs. some other technologies
  • Puts water use pressure on previously undeveloped land
  • Red tape hassle: difficult to obtain permitting

PROS

  • Uses difficult-to-develop land in low population areas
  • Uses land not earmarked as a natural preserve or national park
  • Supplies large amounts of clean energy
  • Consumes less water than traditional power plants
  • Contributes to energy independence/domestic energy production
  • Provides federal revenues

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