Solar power’s land & justice challenges

I pay enough attention to solar power to understand its potential, its (current and near-term) limitations and how much better it is than every fossil fuel when assessed by the triple bottom line (see here too). I’m not a solar guru, but I know it’s much cleaner, its carbon impact is very low over its life cycle, and now PV is durable, attaining cost-competitiveness, and has an industry with twice as many jobs than there are in coal mining.

This is not to say it is without problems. The problems can be overcome, but they are real. This recent piece on Yale E360, titled “In Clash of Greens, a Case for Large Scale Solar Projects” caught my eye. Phillip Warburg urges us to stop being so NIMBY (not in my backyard) about renewable energy so we can get away from fossil fuels, in particular coal. Regarding a proposed solar farm in New Jersey he writes,


Tensions can run equally high when solar projects are proposed for natural areas, such as the patch of New Jersey forest where Six Flags Great Adventure has sought to build a solar farm. Those who object to this 90-acre project apparently give little thought to the 1.4 million acres of mountains and forests that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia will have destroyed by 2020. They are focused on concerns closer to home.

The questions are: how many acres of forest, how many human and animal lives, how many miles of streams, how much carbon and more will be saved if we actually swap coal out for solar? Will all of the damage done during the life cycle of this solar farm prevent more than 90 acres of Appalachia? This is not a question I have a detailed answer to right here, but it is an important question to ask. Given the large-scale success of renewable energy and the domestic displacement of coal-fired electricity by natural gas, my hunch is that such a solar farm could save land, water, creatures and people in a place where they have been degraded and oppressed for decades.

Not only could it (note: could) displace coal (and eventually natural gas) but it would be environmentally just. We know that people of color and poor rural people bear the burdens of our energy-related pollution. Hell, they bear the burden of all of our pollution. Let’s have some affluent communities put up and stop externalizing the risks of their energy demand onto the marginalized. Poor lives matter. Black lives matter. We need energy systems that build justice as fairness and sustainability as conviviality into them, that is individual freedom realized in ecological dependence.

I think Warburg makes some good points that can lead this way. He cites some positive examples from California and Nevada. Other recent examples have addressed how we could put dams out of commission and use the drained reservoirs to site solar farms (or on the dams themselves, making them more likely to hang around). We should build on already degraded land. As landscape and habitat degradation stands as a major challenge to utility-scale PV, using degraded land makes sense. But it doesn’t have to stay degraded.

Because land disturbance can be minimized once arrays are in, we can upgrade that land through succession. If we design from a bioregional perspective we can do some good. In the east, we could work on old strip mine land and slowly cultivate healthier soils by using perennial grasses and flowers that immediately provide habitat and get the ball (very slowly) rolling to fix carbon. This won’t be easy by any means. This is a long game to play. But we look ready to play it. And there are already commercial groups providing some of these mixes for solar outfits.

Now felling forests? I’m not a fan. It’s only sensible for that New Jersey farm to go in if it will save hundreds of acres in Appalachia from mountaintop removal or from being fracked. Right now that’s a pretty big if.

If we are to bump solar to really displace coal, we have to move quickly using the best tools we have available and use those tools with a commitment to strong sustainability or what David Orr would call ecological sustainability. If sustainability is about anything, it’s about long-term planning and commitment. So we have to place some stakes and commit if we are remaining committed to large-scale electricity use.

I agree with Warberg’s conclusion:

The truth, however, is that clean energy is not without costs, and decarbonizing our energy supply involves making tough choices. Wide swaths of terrain will be needed if we are to capture the sun’s vast energy potential. Figuring out a responsible way to install renewable energy projects on that land is vastly preferable to the alternative — a world under siege from climate change.

Let’s commit to using degraded land and healing it in the process. On farmland, we will need to maintain or improve its soils as well. For forested land, we need to make it absolutely certain that solar will displace and obviate mountaintop removal and other strip mining first and fracking second. On this problem, like other super-wicked problems, we will need (and are developing) other policies for sustainability that create new path dependencies.


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