The solar paradox
I’m a staunch environmentalist who always threw my hat in the ring for solar power. But recently, the area around my childhood home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania received approval to have a solar farm constructed on the site, clearcutting over 600 acres of pristine forest. This decision has left me conflicted, so I decided I wanted to learn more about the solar industry and how it’s impacting my adopted home near the Chesapeake Bay.
In mid-May, I attended the quarterly meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), who were devoting their agenda to this issue, which included touring two farms in Howard County, Maryland. Historically, cultures around the world have used different techniques to harness the sun, but it wasn’t until 1954 when the technology to convert sunlight into electric power was invented. Now, the solar industry is expected to quadruple in the next decade.
As I learned at the CAC meeting, the issue isn’t necessarily related to using solar power in general, but rather the land-use conflicts that come into play. One of the speakers at the meeting, Peggy Hall, director of The Ohio State University’s Agricultural and Resource Law Center, noted that solar installations “require huge amounts of land consumption—even more than extractive industries.” She continued by stating that the “solar footprint doesn’t change over time,” meaning that fossil-based energy continuously will require new land but solar facilities can continue to use the same land year after year, meaning that eventually, the benefits of solar will outweigh those of oil and gas when it comes to land use.
Agricultural lands are the most desirable for solar fields because they tend to have prime soils to support the panel infrastructure, are unshaded and flat. In the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture, published in 2017, it was found that 133,176 farms in the United States had some type of renewable energy producing system, with 90,142 of them having solar panels in particular. When you compare these numbers to the 2009 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the growth of the industry is staggering—only 9,509 farms had some type of renewable energy producing system at that point, with 7,968 containing solar panels.
But what about those regions that contain more forests than farms? Since we now know that solar farms do best on areas of flat land that is unshaded, this means that trees will have to come down. At a time where we are falling short of our forest buffer and tree canopy outcomes in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, cutting down any trees can sting. Clear-cutting forests disturbs wildlife habitat, contributes to erosion and has the potential to add more pollution into our waterways.
The concern about solar panels contributing to the degradation of water quality is starting to be realized throughout the region. In March of this year, Virginia announced that solar projects would now be regulated as impervious surface areas in the Commonwealth, due to the amount of stormwater runoff that it generates. Rainwater falls on the panels, flowing off as it would the roof of a house. While some of the rain may be absorbed into the ground, some of it will also flow off the land, causing erosion and carrying sediments and pollution with it downstream. However, there has been very little research conducted at this point as to how exactly solar projects impact water quality, and stormwater systems have not yet adapted to deal with these installations.
A state government employee at the CAC meeting admitted that most states did not think about water quality and land use when encouraging solar development—and now policymakers are grappling with how to handle the issue. Large-scale solar installations are causing state and local government agencies to look closely at proposed sites and weigh the costs and benefits associated with a reduced dependency on oil and gas against tree, habitat loss and a decline in water quality.
While there may not be a lot of research conducted about how solar installations contribute to a decline in water quality, there has been enough conducted to recommend replanting grass underneath the panels to lessen the runoff. And with replanted grass comes new opportunities for farmers. In a Renewable Energy Magazine article, it’s pointed out that foraging plants and vegetables have proven to grow very well under the solar panels, plus there is the added benefit of energy generation for farmers, reducing their costs. And it’s not just crops taking advantage of these new grasslands, livestock in the region are using them for grazing. A recent Bay Journal article extolled the benefits of sheep feeding among the solar panels.
Doug Boucher, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that “unlike cornfields, solar fields don’t require the use of insecticides, fungicides, tillage or irrigation. Nor do they require fertilizer, whether synthetically or from manure, which both lead to water pollution.” Additionally, many solar fields are integrating pollinator-friendly practices, like planting native grasses or wildflowers, to attract bees and butterflies. Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment found that pollinator-friendly solar can boost crop yields, increase groundwater recharging, reduce erosion and provide long-term cost savings when it comes to operation and maintenance.
But the largest benefit to installing solar farms throughout the region, is that it gets us closer to meeting our renewable energy goals. The Chesapeake Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia have committed to achieving some fairly impressive renewable energy goals over the next several years.
- Delaware: Committed to achieve 40% of energy from renewable sources by 2035.
- District of Columbia: Mandating 100% renewable energy by 2032 and by 2041, 10% of that energy must come from solar.
- Maryland: Plans to receive 50% of energy from renewable sources by 2030, with a minimum of 14.5% from solar power.
- New York: Goal of achieving 70% clean energy by 2030.
- Pennsylvania: Committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and 80% by 2050.
- Virginia: Goal of achieving 100% clean energy by 2050.
So, what do you think? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Or is it the other way around? Or does the answer lie in more carefully planned solar sites—like putting panels on rooftops or on previously developed sites? One thing is clear, as former Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles noted in an article published by Pew Charitable Trusts, “the conflicts are growing and the need for innovative solutions is growing too.”
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