Small vs. Big Solar

Environmentalists were the first renewable energy advocates, but are now sometimes finding they have to make hard choices – whether to support massive solar farms in the US desert at the expense of wildlife habitat.

Although there is certainly room for some large solar plants, we believe in general that "small is beautiful."

Small solar plants on the roofs of hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses – the way it’s been done so successfully in Germay – makes the most sense to us. It empowers individuals, small businesses as well as hospitals and large businesses to become energy self-sufficient. Germany’s feed-in laws – which offer a guranteed, higher price for solar energy for 20 years – also often provide an additional income stream and are thus, very attractive.

With all the solar financing options available today, many without requiring an upfront investment, why aren’t we pursuing small solar as a first option?


Arizona utility, Tucson Electric, is planning to lease rooftops on schools and other large public buildings over the next three years, adding up to 11 megawatts (MW) of distributed solar. 

Its TEP Bright Roofs program will feed the solar energy into the grid, generating enough electricity to serve over 1,800 homes.

A high school with 200,000 square feet of roof space could host a 1 MW system that generates enough power to serve about 170 homes…. and it will provide a much needed revenue stream for the school.

An article in Mother Jones says:

The warm December sun brings out the desert colors: green creosote bushes, fading red wildflowers, golden cholla cacti rearing their prickly heads above the low scrub. To the north lie the Cady Mountains, where bighorn sheep move between peaks. Except for the chirping of a few birds-horned larks, loggerhead shrikes, mountain plovers, and American pipits – it’s quiet.

But not for long. Later this year, the desert will thrum with the pounding of backhoes, heavy trucks, and articulated haulers, rolling in to transform the Mojave into the epicenter of America’s solar revolution.

In 2009, President Obama announced that renewable energy projects launched before December 31, 2010, could qualify for millions of dollars of federal stimulus money, kicking off an unprecedented solar gold rush. (The deadline has since been extended.) The California Energy Commission estimates that nine solar projects it recently approved will generate over 4,000 megawatts of power – about 6% of the state’s grid capacity, up from less than 1%.

Across the country, environmentalists are finding themselves in the awkward position of having to choose between clean energy and wildlife: In the Midwest, wind farms ensnare bats and migrating birds, and hydropower dams in the Northwest decimate salmon spawning grounds. "We’ve been supportive of efforts to accelerate clean energy projects," says Jim Lyons, of Defenders of Wildlife. "But the scale of these new projects is massive, and they could be enormously destructive to plants and animals."

But so, of course, could global warming. In a recent study, Scott Loarie, an ecologist with the Carnegie Institution for Science, found that climate change is forcing ecoystems to creep northward by about a quarter mile each year. That’s a problem, he says, since "only 8% of our protected areas are big enough to allow animals to move north ahead of climate change."

The trick, Loarie says, is to figure out how to build renewable energy projects while inflicting minimal damage on the landscape. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, energy companies are required to estimate how many animals will be displaced by a project, and to develop a mitigation plan. This sometimes means moving animals to another tract of land – think of it as a wildlife refugee camp.

In practice, this doesn’t always work. Desert tortoises, the crotchety old farts of the animal kingdom, spend their entire lives within a few miles of their birthplace. If you pick them up and move them, they will promptly freak out and dehydrate themselves by peeing out several months’ worth of stored water.

And since tortoises rarely leave their burrows during the winter and summer, they’re notoriously hard to count. Solar companies’ census methods don’t always catch every animal. In one case, a company counted tortoises on a site it wanted in California’s Ivanpah Valley – but after the project was approved, another study found 35% more. Despite the evidence of imprecise census work, major green groups chose not to sue over the project. No one wants to look like they’re against renewable energy, explains Gloria Smith, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.

Of course, solar projects needn’t destroy pristine landscapes at all. I visited one future plant site where farming had long ago scared off tortoises and other sensitive species. And consider that just outside the Mojave lie acres upon acres of flat, sunny spaces where the tortoise count is guaranteed to be zero: the roofs of warehouses and big-box stores. The idea has taken off elsewhere; in Germany, where solar installations have proceeded at eight times the US rate, hundreds of thousands of individuals and companies now sell their excess electricity back to the power authority.

But here in the US, where public land can be rented for a song, it’s more cost-effective for utilities to build a massive power plant out in the desert than hundreds of little ones atop privately owned roofs. And utilities usually aren’t keen on the idea of buying electricity from their customers, says Bill Powers, a solar installer in San Diego.

"Utilities make money off power plants; they’d lose money if big-box stores started making their power on the roof," he says. To wit, the New Mexico utility PNM waged an unsucessful battle in 2009 to prevent residents and businesses from installing rooftop panels and selling the electricity they didn’t need back into the grid. The same year, Xcel Energy fought and lost a similar battle in Colorado.

In the coming years, you’re likely to hear a lot of this kind of argument: What are a few tortoises (or bats, or salmon) compared with thousands of megawatts of renewable energy? But the individual creatures are only part of the point, says Anderson. "In protecting the tortoise," she says, "you end up protecting the entire ecosystem." Doing that right will require cooperation between conservation groups, governments, utilities, and energy companies – not to mention plenty of biological grunt work.

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Comments on “Small vs. Big Solar”

  1. Dan Perkins

    Sites are just the beginning as The Sunrise Power Link is stringing 19 miles of line through the Cleavland National Forest near Alpine. We have no idea the long term commitments on those existing lines and must assume that new lines will be needed to move that power into the urban areas.

    Solar Rooftops and utilizing Urban vacant land will be far better as the grid is in place and can be tapped.

  2. sylvia cleary

    This post is awesome..i’ve been reading tons of crap posts from other blogs, but shows you have a more educated reader base.

  3. Christof Demont-Heinrich

    Nice post — don’t forget parking lots. They represent a truly vast area for solar colonization, an area that I suspect might be larger, perhaps much larger, than rooftop space in the U.S.

    And the great thing about parking lots is:

    a) people appreciate sun, rain and snow protection for their cars;
    b) electric cars can plug in directly to the solar electricity being produced by solar canopies/carports.

  4. RHSolar

    Awesome article, and I totally agree…solar needs to be small. There’s no need to create huge power plants in empty land. Why not put it on buildings that are already constructed? Building in the middle of the desert also means you have to build power lines to transport the energy, just adding more unnecessary costs. I found out how much a solar system would cost on my home at where they have a cool tool to see costs, returns, and even ROI after 30 years.

  5. VintageZeus

    Total $/kW cost of solar energy generation favors larger thermal installations. This is why regions with the best sun exposure and available open land (i.e. USA, Spain, Australia)are going this route. Neither Germany’s available land or weather are condusive to large scale solar thermal plants, otherwise they’d be doing it too. PV systems have their place and if their prices continue to drop they’ll be more competitive, but never to the degree of replacing large plants for the % of our renewable energy needs that should be solar derived.


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