They paved (a tiny bit of) paradise and put up solar panels

VTDigger’s Friday feed is infected with a bit of uncharacteristic headline fearmongering.

HIGH SPACE DEMANDS FOR VERMONT’S FUTURE SOLAR FARMS IF ENERGY STAYS LOCAL

The story concerns a presentation to the Legislature’s Solar Siting Task Force by Asa Hopkins of the Public Service Department. And by “HIGH SPACE DEMANDS,” it means Hopkins’ estimate of between 8,000 and 13,000 acres of solar panels statewide. That’s assuming we are to meet our legally-mandated goal of 90% renewable energy by the year 2050.

Wow. That sounds like a lot of land.

Is it?

Not really. The state of Vermont has almost 6,000,000 acres. A conscientious reporter (or editor) might have thought to include that fact.

So, if you take the upper end of the estimate, solar panels would cover two-tenths of one percent of Vermont. (A conscientious headline writer might have asked whether “HIGH SPACE DEMANDS” is an accurate characterization.)

You know what? I’d take that, if it means getting 90% of our energy from local, renewable sources.

But let’s say you don’t accept the tradeoff. Here are some further considerations.

— Hopkins notes that there are “roughly 3,650 acres of commercial building area in the state.” The story reports that policymakers intend to encourage solar development on existing structures. Which would greatly reduce solar’s impact on undeveloped land.

(Also, it gives you another idea of the scale of things. Vermont has comparatively little “commercial building area.” At the absolute worst, solar installations would quadruple that very tiny footprint. That’d leave an awful lot of forest, mountain, and wildlife habitat untouched.)

— He assumes that “as much as possible [we] rely on sources indigenous to Vermont.” More likely, we’ll continue to get some of our renewable energy from Hydro Quebec and other outside sources, meaning we won’t have to produce as much energy here.

— He assumes that solar cells would “deliver the majority of future power needs.” If we don’t want that many solar panels, we could change the mix.

— His estimate assumes “current technology to develop models for energy-production projections decades into the future.” Given the pace of technological change in general, and advancements in solar technology specifically, it’s almost certain that future solar cells will be more efficient.

Also, if we develop any kind of decent energy-storage technology, we won’t need as much energy production.

Judging by the Comments section beneath the article, the anti-renewable crowd sees the Hopkins report as fuel for its fire. I see it as reassuring: even if we assume the greatest possible impact, we would have solar panels covering a fraction of a percent of our land. To me, that’s good news.

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6 thoughts on “They paved (a tiny bit of) paradise and put up solar panels

  1. seth802

    Instead of paving even a tiny bit (more) of paradise, wouldn’t it be a good idea to look toward parking canopies/carports as described in this article headlined by the Washington Post as “the best idea in a long time”? We already have basically defiled land (parking lots), and they provide shade for cars as well as generating electricity. Seems to make sense in terms of siting, if not (according to the article) in terms of economics. But incentives could be increased for such sites compared to virgin-soil sites. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/01/28/the-best-idea-in-a-long-time-covering-parking-lots-with-solar-panels/

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Think you missed some details, bud. State officials already plan to prioritize already-developed commercial space. But there simply isn’t that much of it.

      Also, not to be picky, but there’s virtually no “virgin soil” in Vermont. We clearcut the whole place at least twice in the 19th Century — once for the sheep boom, and again for lumbering. Funny how it all came back so well.

      Reply
      1. chuck gregory

        Good point, John! The main reasons for forest resurgence was the steady exodus of the population until the 1940’s– the state lost 30% of its population to the better opportunities everywhere else in America (read The Yankee Exodus) and the introduction of both coal and oil for heating. As long as Act 250 curbs development and the tax code rewards property owners for keeping land forested, we will continue to have them. If either of those is eliminated, watch out!

  2. NanuqFC

    I have as yet seen no report on the environmental impact of the manufacture of solar panels, nor any report on what happens to them when they’re obsolete. Before we buy this pig in a poke in any huge way, let’s get the whole story.

    Reply
  3. Bob Zeliff

    Well said!

    I really have a hard time understanding the rational of oppositing Solar unless you like the status quo of fossil fuels and care little about global warming.

    Reply

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