Study Advocates for More Planning in Solar Energy Harvesting


Solar energy is beneficial in an incredible amount of ways. It doesn’t create dangerous carbon emissions that pollute the environment. Sunlight is infinite, and there’s no way to use it all up. Also, the process is cost-effective and saves money for all involved.

However, a new study published by researchers reveals that — out of 161 planned projects — only 15 percent are not being constructed on compatible land. These numbers mean that the related solar energy systems will not be as cost-friendly or neutral for the environment as you’d expect.

The study was carried out by researchers from Stanford University and the University of California’s Riverside and Berkeley. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It’s a tough concept to grasp, especially since solar energy projects are often assumed to be both cost-effective and neutral for the environment. If the projects are not optimized correctly, those assumptions may not be true.

How the Study Was Conducted

The researchers analyzed utility-scale solar facilities that will be commissioned to each generate electricity of one megawatt or more — enough power to supply, on average, 164 residential properties in the United States.

More specifically, they examined each current project location, its proximity to existing power systems, and the surrounding environment. This review led them to discover that many of the planned systems are located in natural California shrublands that are not ideal for their operation. Of the 161 systems studied, 28 percent will be located in existing croplands or pastures, about 15 percent will be in more developed areas, and another 19 percent are too far from existing infrastructure and power systems. These removed power locations can have a negative impact on the economy, energy generation and the environment.

So, while these systems offer many benefits for businesses who use solar energy and related power systems, they must be implemented properly to have a truly positive impact on the world.

The Study Indicates More Money Could Be Saved

A lot goes into the construction and operation of these facilities.

For example, 19 percent of planned facilities are being built too far from the current infrastructure — meaning locations over six miles away. This distance negatively impacts the surrounding area in many ways. A transmission corridor — the system used to transport the energy — will need to be constructed to make these facilities usable.

This corridor now takes up more valuable land that would otherwise be natural and left untouched. Furthermore, the energy generated by the facility will need to travel further, which will translate to greater losses and higher operating costs. As the energy travels over long distances through wires, it will experience a voltage drop, which is a natural occurrence in a circuit.

Using Developed Land Could Help Cut Costs

Finally, none of this analysis takes into account the increased cost of building in such an area so far away. One of the study’s authors, Rebecca R. Hernandez, believes that there are much better places to build such facilities.

“If our country wants to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80% of 1990 emissions by 2050,” she says, “some 27,500 square miles of land could be required for solar installations, which is about the area of South Carolina. We can increase the land-use efficiency in ways such as decreasing spaces between rows of photovoltaic modules or concentrating solar power mirrors. Better yet, locate installations in areas already affected by humans, such as on landfills, over parking lots, and on rooftops and nearest to where the energy is being consumed.”

In other words, one of the biggest factors of compatibility has to do with whether or not the affected land has already been developed or altered in some way. The developed land would be more beneficial and compatible for such systems, as opposed to undeveloped areas where wildlife and vegetation naturally thrive.

A great example of compatible land would be the rooftop of a large-scale parking garage. The land has already been developed, and nothing in the natural habitat will be disturbed to make room for the system. The project could easily take into account the existing design of the structure and modify it to meet the needs of a solar energy system.

By modifying existing properties, the projects could also save money in the long run: New areas won’t need to be developed, and extra equipment and systems won’t have to be implemented to transfer the generated energy.

The team behind the study hopes this information will make everyone consider the physical setup of future and existing projects in the solar energy market and beyond — turbine and wind energy systems could benefit from the same approach.

Photo credit: Chris Chesneau / David Mark

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Kayla Matthews
Kayla Matthews
Kayla Mathews is a writer and blogger with a passion for technology and gadgets. Follow her on Google+ and Twitter to get updates on all of her latest posts.
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