As a landscape architect, I cringe when I see massive engineering and infrastructure projects that demonstrate no sensitivity to the site, ecology, or culture. Solar power and renewable energy projects are no exception. There needs to be a better way to deploy large scale solar energy projects that reduce their cultural and ecological impact on the landscape.
There is an interesting etymology emerging for solar power projects that have agricultural and ecological imagery. Solar farms, solar groves, solar forest, solar trees, solar ranch, and bright fields, all evoke sylvan or pastoral landscapes while the reality is anything but that in most cases. If we play this game – solar orchards, solar gardens, solar bosques, solar glens, solar dell, solar pastures, solar glades, solar forest, solar plantation, solar jungles, solar meadows, solar pastures, solar shrubs, solar trees, and perhaps solar topiaries – may all soon to join the lexicon of solar projects for better or worse.
Compared to most other forms of energy, solar farms have one of the lightest impact no mater how you slice it – EROEI, LCA, area per watt, co2e/watt or btu, et cetera. Robert Bryce got the math wrong by ignoring the baseline of fossil fuel impacts in his June NYTimes Op-Ed. Yes – solar and wind farms require large areas (if not build in urban areas), but their footprints are minimal compared to fossil fuels which require equally large areas that are usually hidden from public view – from the mines/oil fields, to processing plants/refineries, pipelines, tank farms, and then there is the area contaminated downwind and down stream that Bryce is paid to ignore. Okay, there are toxic byproducts of both thin film and silicon cell production, but again, these are significantly lower per watt then most other forms of energy production.
Yes, solar energy development may require removal of vegetation over tens of square miles (which impacts the ability to keep the mirrors clean), digging the point foundations for the heliostats (see image below) & turbines, and depletion of groundwater to keep the panels/mirrors clean. But compared to the other renewable energy systems, solar’s environmental impacts are an order of magnitude less then wind farms which sprawl over much more land, mix the atmosphere, require massive foundations and structures, and create noise problems to name just a few issues; or are several orders of magnitudes less then hydropower and most biofuels. Energy sprawl is real, but don’t blame wind or solar.
Still, this small footprint isn’t good enough, but now there is hope for integrating photovoltaics into our cultural landscape.