Here Comes the Sun (and Wind)

Catalyst / by Veronique Greenwood /

Four experts discuss the balance between pristine land and renewable energy, the pros and cons of photovoltaics versus solar thermal, and how much rooftop solar can help.

The Catalyst: Driving Reactions to Issues in the News

Is the current development paradigm misguided?
Our Panel Responds:

Solar power in California has been heavily subsidized for the past decade. The state’s solar power capacity has grown by a third between 2007 and 2008 and now accounts for two-thirds of America’s solar energy capacity. But the amount of power generated by the Sun in California is still miniscule—less than .025 percent of the state’s needs. Even with time and money, solar leaves a lot to be desired in terms of capacity. It’s a similar story with wind.

Enthusiasm for renewables, despite their inefficiency, is gaining speed. Last June, the US Bureau of Land Management, inundated with proposals for solar energy projects on more than 1 million acres of desert, issued a moratorium on further submissions in order to consider the environmental damage. Though the hold was called off after only a month, the idea of 1 million patchwork acres of solar grids of various types, each with its own need for access roads, water pipes, and electric wiring, gives even the most dedicated renewables advocates pause.

At current levels of efficiency, even a million acres would provide only about 3 percent of what the US uses in a year. (See pdf)

In March, with 19 solar and wind projects eyeing half a million acres of California’s Mojave Desert, Senator Diane Feinstein announced she was proposing a bill to give the desert national monument status and protect it from renewable energy development. Elsewhere, though, the desert rush is unchecked: On July 13, German company Munich Re met with other companies to form a consortium whose goal is installing solar plants in the Sahara to provide power to Europe. In China, six gigantic wind farms, each with the capacity of more than 16 coal-fired plants, are under construction in the Gobi Desert.

So there appears to be serious conflict between renewables and biodiversity. Deserts may seem like the perfect place for wind and solar setups, but the environmental impacts of haphazard renewable development remain significant.

With technology that seems promising but manifestly inefficient, is the current development paradigm misguided? How should we deal with the ecological impact of solar and wind installations spread over millions of acres? Can we mine some other source of wind and solar power, such as city roofs? What could scientists, policymakers, and businesses do to encourage a more holistic systems approach?

“Ready, Aim, Aim Aim” Won’t Work—We Must Fire

Amanda Little is an award-winning environmental journalist whose work includes the long-running Muckraker column on and She is the author of Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—A Ride to Our Renewable Future.

A key misconception about the clean-energy future is that there will be no tradeoffs. We are continually—and often glibly—promised that green innovations such as solar, wind, and electric cars are win-win-win-win technologies—a good for the economy, the environment, national security, and public health. To a certain extent, such claims are accurate, but like most products of industry, these innovations come with costs. We’ve seen battles play out over wind-turbine installations in areas such as the coast of Cape Cod, on the grounds that the gargantuan machinery will disturb pristine landscapes. We’ve seen politicians attempt to ban solar installations in national parks for fear that the panels and infrastructure needed to install them will disturb fragile ecosystems.

All are valid concerns, but going forward we will have to evaluate—and I believe come to accept—some of the tradeoffs. We must ask: What is a bigger cost—sullying a coastal view or blocking a clean-energy project that could remove millions of pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? Is it more problematic to disrupt a desert ecosystem or to stymie clean-energy production in areas with the most abundant and reliable solar resources? It will be crucial, no doubt, to keep certain fragile wildernesses pristine and machine-free.

But solving the global warming crisis will demand concessions. I am very optimistic that we will find ways to make wind and solar installations dramatically more efficient and less of an environmental burden. Consider, for instance, groundbreaking innovation underway in nanotechnology and solar-concentrating systems that promise to shrink the surface area we need to produce solar energy. But we can’t wait until those technological leaps occur to begin aggressively installing wind and solar wherever we can—on urban and suburban rooftops and in the costal, central, and southwestern areas that have the strongest solar and wind capacity.

As T. Boone Pickens has said, we can’t have a “Ready, aim, aim aim!” strategy. We’ve got to fire.

Finding the Best Tech Is Key

Jessika Trancik is an Omidyar Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute, and will shortly be starting a faculty position in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT. Her research focuses on evaluating energy technologies to determine candidates for long-term climate change mitigation.

For me this debate highlights the importance of developing a rigorous framework – based on quantitative data – for comparing different energy technologies.

There are several dimensions of interest in evaluating energy technologies, including cost, carbon emissions, resource size, installation size, viability in different parts of the world, and land-use impacts, to name a few. A quantitative comparison allows us to better understand the trade-offs in moving from one technology to another.

It also forces us to use terminology carefully. For example, it becomes clear that the category of “solar” needs to be decomposed further to distinguish between photovoltaics and solar thermal electricity, which have different land-use requirements and cost-sensitivity to solar radiation. The terms are important because they are used to determine categories for policy support. (One painful example is the corn ethanol debacle, where a comparison of the carbon emissions data for corn-based and cellulosic ethanol would have made clear the need to distinguish between different feedstocks.)

Photovoltaic panels, which directly convert sunlight to electricity, can be installed in small and large system sizes, making them suitable for large open spaces or rooftops. Solar thermal electricity, which uses heat from the sun to drive a turbine, is more economical at large installation sizes and therefore requires large open plots of land. 
Solar thermal is cheaper than photovoltaics in sunny areas, but its costs are more sensitive to solar radiation levels and therefore it doesn’t do well in cloudy climates. This limits its viability to sunny areas such as the deserts.

By examining the data, we see that by installing a combination of solar thermal electricity on previously developed, fallow land in locations with high solar radiation, and photovoltaics on rooftops and roadsides in sunny and cloudy locations, we can meet electricity needs and leave national park land untouched. (The area of suitable developed land, such as roadsides and rooftops, has been shown to be sufficient for photovoltaics alone to meet electricity needs, even given current efficiencies.)

In the case of solar – the most abundant clean energy source we have – the data tells us it is possible to generate all of the electricity we need on land that is already developed. With these technologies and others, however, only by carefully examining their performance characteristics will we raise the level of the debate and sensibly manage their deployment.

Rooftops Won’t Be Enough

Linda Resseguie is the project manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.

As far as I have been able to discern, there is no electricity-generating technology in existence today or likely to be available over the next several years that is without undesirable environmental aspects. Each technology has its own distinct environmental challenges.

President Obama and Secretary Salazar believe that renewable energy resources located on BLM-administered public lands should be considered in the search for solutions to America’s dependence on foreign oil and in response to the problems presented by global climate change. “We have a choice to make,” President Obama said in March. “We can remain one of the world’s leading importers of foreign oil, or we can make the investments that would allow us to become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy. We can let climate change continue to go unchecked, or we can help stop it.  We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity.” And Secretary Salazar has made the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy top priorities for the Department of the Interior. 
As far as relying on rooftops goes, these installations can contribute to the nation’s need for electricity, but rooftop solar is expensive, intermittent, and provides huge challenges for utility companies whose mission is to provide affordable, reliable electricity. (The public believes that rooftop is a viable alternative to utility-scale solar development, however, so this technology will be briefly discussed in our Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.)

For their part, utility-scale wind and solar facilities require large areas of land, have intermittent capacity (although some solar facilities will include thermal storage that will allow electricity to be produced over a longer period of the day), and may be harmful to wildlife. But, at the Bureau of Land Management, our obligation is to analyze the environmental effects of these technologies, as well as specific projects, and to find ways to avoid or mitigate any adverse impacts of the projects that are ultimately approved.

All Things Considered, We Can Make Solar Work

Nathan Lewis is the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, where he studies electrochemistry of metals and semiconductors. His plenary lecture at the Materials Science Society meeting of 2007, entitled “Powering the Planet,” can be accessed here.

All energy sources have positives and negatives. Coal is dirty. Nuclear power makes long-lived radioactive waste. Oil can create offshore spills that pollute our coastlines. Wind can interfere with migrating birds as well as aircraft radar systems. Hydroelectricity disrupts natural river basins. 

Solar, while relatively benign, comes with siting issues such as prime areas with high amounts of sunlight being protected desert areas. We either have the lights go out or we find a way to site energy generation facilities of one type or another in a responsible way. The amount of area required at 10 percent efficient solar cells in order to power the United States would be comparable to the nations numbered highways, so this is not by that measure an extraordinary amount of land. We have covered more area already with parking lots and roads by far than we would need to cover with solar converters to power civilization for centuries. We of course need a way to massively deploy such solar systems both cost-effectively and in an environmentally responsible fashion; we also need to complete the energy system by finding a way to store the energy to account for nighttime and cloudy days. But, all things considered, the facts clearly show that solar energy can in principle be the responsible, sustainable, relatively benign, and preferred method of providing renewable energy to the mix.

Originally published August 27, 2009

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