Myths about Large-scale Solar Threaten Public Lands

The Interior Department and Department of Energy are currently engaged in a large-scale plan for solar development that proposes to open up 21.5 million acres of public land to permit applications by industrial-scale solar developers. Projects will include large-scale PV and CSP plants. Much of the land being targeted is in fragile desert areas that support rare and endangered plant and animal species. And while the developments are expected to have operational lifetimes of just 30 to 50 years, their impacts will be permanent, irreversibly converting the land to industrial zones.

As someone deeply concerned about this issue, I find it particularly vexing to hear the same myths used again and again to argue for the inevitability of this approach to solar development. These myths deserve to be looked at more closely.

“We can’t meet RPS without Big Solar.” One rationale for Big Solar frequently cited is that the states’ renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) cannot be met without building “some” industrial-scale solar projects. National environmental groups, for example, frequently state that it is proper and necessary for public lands to play a role in providing room for Big Solar.

Yet studies show that California’s RPS, for example, could be met just with decentralized PV. To meet California’s target of 33 percent renewables by 2020, about 2,000-2,500 megawatts of PV would have to be installed each year. Even with its small size and low solar insolation, Germany installed about 3,000 MW of mostly decentralized PV in 2009 alone—and in 2010, about 6,500 MW of distributed PV.   Studies of distributed PV potential in California have found more than enough capacity on rooftops to meet the RPS, and have also identified 27,000 MW in ground-mounted capacity near rural transmission stations.

Colorado’s biggest investor-owned utility, Xcel, amended its 2007 resource plan to develop about 30 percent less concentrating solar power than originally planned and is seeking to reduce it further, citing cost as the primary reason – i.e. remote solar thermal is not cost competitive and transmission is proving a major obstacle.  

“We have to put some of it on undeveloped public land.” The claim that utility-scale solar projects must proceed on some undeveloped public land is undermined by the fact that millions of acres of contaminated and degraded land inventoried by the Environmental Protection Agency have been identified as potentially suitable for renewable energy development. In California alone, EPA has identified 1.7 million acres –with 90 of the 215 sites in parcels larger than 200 acres–potentially suitable for such use. All told, EPA has identified 15 million acres of such land nationwide.

“Industrial-scale solar is far more cost-effective than DG.” The residential rooftop solar consolidator 1 Block Off the Grid (1BOG) demonstrates that distributed PV is cost-competitive, even before factoring in the costs of transmission. For example, compare 4 kW residential PV systems sold in the San Antonio area at $6.00/Wac to the capital cost estimated for a 200 MW dry-cooled CSP plant of approximately $5.50/W.

A Los Angeles cooperative called Open Neighborhoods announced a residential PV cooperative solar buy for $4.78 per Watt, almost identical to the price for industrial scale installations.

In addition, solar PV prices are projected to drop at a much faster rate than CSP prices over time. Both the California Energy Commission and the Department of Energy project that solar PV prices will drop by half between 2010 and 2020, while CSP prices are projected to decline much more gradually.

“We are in a race against climate change, and Big Solar will win it.” Another oft-cited claim is that the remote plants are our best chance to get renewables going “big and fast” to address climate change goals. But right now, California has commitments to complete about 6,000 MW of distributed solar PV by 2016, while the big plants lag behind in time and capacity. The 6 “fast-track” remote solar projects in California that have been approved so far will provide about 3,000 MW. 

In addition, due to the real and potential legal challenges to these projects based on environmental impacts, poor analysis, and possible violations of endangered species “takings” permits, their progress will be slow and uncertain.

Moreover, whether these projects can bring a net reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) is called into question when considering the GHG emissions associated with the manufacture and shipping of materials for the sites, as well as the release of sequestered carbon on desert sites—which one seven-year study found at least comparable to, if not greater than, sequestration in some grassland and forest ecosystems. Transmission associated with the remote sites will also include the use of sulfur hexafluoride(SF6), an electrical insulator used in high-voltage transmission that is the most potent of the six greenhouse gases regulated by the EPA, with a global warming potential 23,900 times that of CO2.

“We can do both” big, remote, concentrating solar power and distributed generationJohn Farrell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently stated: “[F]inancial resources are limited, the system of regulations and incentives are skewed toward centralized solutions, and choosing …long-distance transmission of centralized generation… reduces the money available and future prospects for expanded distributed generation.” And even if we could, why be “even-handed” to accommodate both the right approach and the wrong one?

It is not too late to pivot away from the current trajectory that would make industrial zones of public land. A useful first step would be for those who support the policy to own up to the mythical nature of their rationalizations. Alternatively, they can lag behind while the public becomes more aware of the choices before them and the possibility of doing this right.

We can confront the climate crisis in a cost-effective, timely manner —with far less harm to the environment we hope to save. To do so, we must pursue distributed PV in the built environment and on degraded lands with the alacrity with which we are now pursuing Big Solar on public lands.



  • Janine is founder and director of the Western Lands Project, a Seattle non-profit that has worked since 1997 to prevent privatization of federal public land. She is also a co-founder of the coalition Solar Done Right, which seeks to move US solar energy policy away from biologically rich public lands and onto rooftops and the built environment.

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Janine is founder and director of the Western Lands Project, a Seattle non-profit that has worked since 1997 to prevent privatization of federal public land. She is also a co-founder of the coalition Solar Done Right, which seeks to move US solar energy policy away from biologically rich public lands and onto rooftops and the built environment.

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