When we wrote our story, Small vs Large Solar, we thought we were alone in wondering why mammoth solar plants that cover thousands of acres of desert habitat were being emphasized over distributed solar that would cover the roofs of millions of buildings in the US.
But others are questioning this approach too. A Colorado group, Solar Done Right, has issued a report, "Wrong From the Start," which questions the Obama administration's public lands solar policy and explores distributed energy alternatives as a much better way to mainstream renewable energy.
The Bureau of Land Management's solar policy would open hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands to industrial scale solar plants.
Solar Done Right asks federal agencies to include in its analysis consideration of smaller projects such as photovoltaic solar arrays on the rooftops of homes and businesses, over parking lots, on already-disturbed lands and near transmission substations.
By doing this, the need for expensive new transmission lines would be eliminated and solar could blanket the US much more quickly. It would also put the average person and business in the driver's seat, making them self-sufficient power producers as Germany has done.
Despite the crucial importance of lowering carbon emissions, no scientific studies have examined the claim that these projects reduce net greenhouse emissions when construction, transmission, and disruption of carbon-sequestering ecosystems are taken into account.
Solar Done Right says: Habitat destruction threatens the diversity of life on this planet. Renewable energy strategies that damage habitat only make the problem worse. Distributed generation such as rooftop solar is the faster, cheaper, cleaner and more effective way of meeting our energy needs in the next century.
With 253 million acres in BLM-managed lands alone, it may seem that the public lands, and their potential for use, are endless. Yet much of this area is already damaged or fragmented by mining, urban encroachment, oil and gas operations, livestock grazing, motorized recreation, and other uses. Large, contiguous areas that retain their ecological integrity are increasingly rare: these are some of the areas most acutely threatened by large-scale uses such as industrial solar.
There is a widely held misconception that point-of-use distributed rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) is too expensive, too slow to implement, and inadequate to meet our renewable energy needs, and that remote utility-scale solar power plants should be the centerpiece of our nation's solar energy policy.
The California Energy Commission has said in assessments of various utility-scale solar power projects that, although such projects will cause substantial and unmitigable harm to the environment, regulations normally restricting these impacts should be overridden in light of the urgency of reducing greenhouse gases and meeting California's Renewable Portfolio Standard. Yet distributed PV can achieve the same objective without the environmental harm and at lower cost.
Our deserts are irrigated by water that fell thousands of years ago, covered in vegetative assemblages that have been developing for longer than recorded human history, and some of the individual plants in them are older than the oldest bristlecone pines. Once altered, those plant communities may never return to their original state even under optimal conditions. If the desert's aquifers and vegetative communities are forever changed, the animal wildlife that has evolved dependence on local springs, plant habitat and edible vegetation will suffer. Given the permanent damage that would result from industrial energy development in desert wildlands, it's time we stopped calling such development "renewable energy."
Industrial-scale solar power generation is economically feasible only because recent policy has brought massive taxpayer-funded subsidies to the table. Ironically, many of the names behind Big Solar that are taking advantage of this policy are familiar from the realms of of Big Oil (BP and Chevron) and big bailouts (Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley).
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club has called for large scale solar development in places where it will do the least harm - on disturbed land, such as abandoned agricultural lands and defunct mines - and on rooftops and parking lots.
Here's the report: