Large solar projects can be done responsibly

About 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors reflect sunlight to heat water in boilers at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border.
About 300,000 computer-controlled mirrors reflect sunlight to heat water in boilers at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border. Associated Press

As the seventh-largest economy in the world and a clean-energy leader, California plays a key role in shaping the global response to climate change. The benefits of our leadership will be on the world stage later this month during the international climate talks in Paris.

Over several decades, California has successfully advanced the development of renewable energy resources. As a result, the state boasts the highest concentration of solar projects in the nation, including several of the world’s largest. Large-scale solar power plants are enabling California to meet the goals of reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and generating 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

As with any fast-growing, successful industry, it’s essential to ask questions about unintended consequences. We agree it is important to evaluate how the environmental benefits of large-scale solar – carbon reduction, reduced water use and improved local air quality – compare to any negative consequences for people and the environment.

A recent report by the Carnegie Institution for Science and Stanford University, however, draws incomplete conclusions about the impact of large-scale solar projects in California. Without assessing information about siting and development practices, the report suggests that they are damaging agricultural resources and biodiversity on sensitive desert lands.

It is a missed opportunity. The report is flawed and misleading, and it incorrectly implies that there is a conflict between solar power and environmental stewardship.

As with any development, all renewable energy projects impact their immediate environment. In California, those impacts are diligently mitigated – a fact curiously overlooked by the report. Large-scale solar is governed by the California Environmental Quality Act – one of the toughest environmental statutes in the country – and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Every large solar facility developed in the state complies with stringent permitting, environmental assessment and regulatory requirements conducted through a lengthy public process under one or both of these laws. These robust laws apply to development on public, private and tribal lands, and they balance the interests of all stakeholders. Well-sited projects proceed to construction, typically with modifications to address impacts.

And that’s just the beginning.

Large solar projects that impact the habitat of threatened and endangered species also are required to permanently protect similar natural habitat elsewhere at ratios ranging from 1 acre protected to 1 acre developed to 5 to 1. Thus, large solar facilities in California have conserved tens of thousands of acres of habitat. Finally, when any large solar facility in California is decommissioned, the site is restored to its natural state.

Let’s be clear: Climate change is the greatest threat to the environment, agriculture and biodiversity. Large solar projects are already forming the backbone of a revamped electricity grid, replacing traditional fossil fuel plants with clean power that is generated when demand for energy is highest. Rooftop solar is also important, but it cannot be deployed fast enough, or at the scale necessary to achieve the transition to a clean-energy grid on its own. Dramatically increasing our reliance on all forms of solar energy is the key to slowing the devastating effects of climate change.

Like all renewable energy, large solar projects will still require careful land-use considerations. Fortunately, responsible siting and tough regulations have already demonstrated that the benefits of large-scale solar can co-exist with environmental values, and also help preserve natural ecosystems as we head into an uncertain climate future.

Shannon Eddy is executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, a Sacramento-based advocacy group for utility-scale solar companies.