Climate, Conservation, Community: Moving the Land Use Conversation from Conflict to Solution
Thursday, Oct 19 2023
Land use remains one of the biggest challenges holding back widespread clean energy deployment. The increasing number of conflicts surrounding solar and storage development has led to project delays, cancellations and even local ordinances trying to block solar projects altogether.
In response, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), Stanford University and The Nature Conservancy launched the Solar Uncommon Dialogue to minimize land use conflicts and speed utility-scale solar deployment. The initiative brings together 21 organizations across academia, conservation, agriculture, indigenous and community affairs, and environmental advocacy to sign an agreement and develop best practices that solar companies and communities can use to accelerate an inclusive clean energy future.
This solutions-oriented approach is a landmark shift in the conversation around land use. Groups that would normally be on opposing sides are now working together and recognize that there will need to be tradeoffs to build transparent, equitable, and efficient utility-scale solar projects.
Climate, conservation, and community — known as the 3Cs — are the three pillars of the Solar Uncommon Dialogue and the driving force behind the group’s work. Over the coming months, the coalition and its working groups will be developing best practices and a variety of tools for everyone involved in the solar siting process, but solar developers don’t have to wait to put the 3Cs into practice.
Addressing the Climate Crisis
To address climate change and rapidly decarbonize the electric grid, utility-scale solar is one of the best solutions we have.
While all solar installations help to displace carbon emissions, the location of a solar project can help to maximize emission reductions. One strategy to is to target the most carbon-intensive areas of the country for solar project sites to have the greatest impact on emissions reductions.
For example, Brightnight’s Starfire Renewable Energy Center in Kentucky is an 800 megawatt solar project that’s going to be located at one the largest abandoned coal mines in the United States. Because Kentucky has the third most carbon-intensive grid in the country, this solar installation will help to displace more carbon than it would in regions that are already using clean energy.
By locating their project on a former coal mine and connecting it to one of the dirtiest grids in the country, the stakeholders could drastically expand the relative emission reductions of the project while minimizing the impact on the local landscape.
These are the types of thoughtful siting decisions that solar developers are working on now and that the Solar Uncommon Dialogue is already inspiring.
Along with the climate crisis, we also face a biodiversity crisis that requires us to act now to conserve and protect land and species we need to preserve our way of life.
A number of studies have found that solar energy requires less land than other clean energy technologies. With no mines, drills or pipelines, solar is one of the least intrusive forms of energy development. Compared to other generation sources, solar construction is scalable and more flexible. With the right safeguards and thoughtful siting, solar can help us protect even the most delicate habitats.
For example, Primergy went to great lengths to protect local species in the Mojave Desert. During construction of the Gemini Solar project, Primergy categorized thousands of desert tortoises, kept much of the native vegetation in place, installed panels at different heights to adhere to the landscape’s natural contours, and built an on-site nursery to temporarily relocate more than 1,600 plants. Scientists now consider much of the Primergy site a high-quality tortoise habitat.
In addition to protecting habitats, solar projects can also improve soil health, retain water, and nurture keystone species. Farmers and ranchers across the country are using solar to supplement their income, while also grazing livestock and adding gardens beneath the panels. Other projects are using the land beneath solar arrays to create conservation habitats for pollinators, helping to boost the agricultural and ecological benefits for the local community.
While these strategies may not be possible for all solar projects, they’re a step forward and important examples of how solar developers can preserve local habitats and maximize the value of a solar farm.
Delivering for the Community
Sometimes it literally takes a village to build a large-scale solar project.
Many people, agencies, and community groups are often involved with the siting and approval process. Each voice and community need matters, but tradeoffs on all sides often need to be made to move ahead. Balancing those interests, whether they’re about project costs or aesthetics, should be done in a transparent, equitable, and efficient manner.
Take Avantus’ Galloway Solar Projects in the rural community of Paint Rock, Texas. Avantus worked to build meaningful relationships with the town’s mayor and superintendent of schools, helping to identify local needs and bring new resources into the community. The first Galloway project helped the local high school build a new track and gym and the second project generated over $18 million in local property taxes, helping to create over 250 high-quality jobs and expand economic activity in the small town.
Solar projects can be a win-win-win for climate, conservation, and community when all parties involved in the solar development process come together and have an open conversation about their needs and expectations.
Moving forward, the Solar Uncommon Dialogue is convening six working groups that will focus on creating concrete solutions and tools all parties can use to move the conversation from conflict to solution.
By convening key stakeholders and developing flexible land use solutions, this initiative is bound to deliver the economic, social, and ecological benefits of solar power to communities across the county.