When solar companies and utilities look for land to build giant, sprawling solar farms one of the prime places they look to are farm lands. But these lands are already often performing an important function—providing food. Now researchers at the University of California (UC), Riverside, have identified more 8,400 square kilometers (the equivalent of 183,000 football fields) in California’s Central Valley as ideal locations for future solar farms.
Farm and agricultural land may seem ideal for solar power because the land often already is cleared and largely flat. However, taking the land away from valuable food production and using it for solar power can have a long-term impact on the land.
"When a piece of land is developed for a solar installation, it is very unlikely to be reverted into agricultural land, even when the lease to the solar company eventually runs out,” contended Michael Allen, professor emeritus of plant pathology and biology at UC Riverside and director of the university's Center for Conservation Biology. Allen was a co-author of the study "Nontraditional sites for future solar farms: Equivalent of 183,000 football fields of nonagricultural land identified in study aiming to ease competition between farmers, conservationists, and energy companies,” which was published in Environmental Science and Technology on Dec. 19.
“That's because flattening and compacting the land, as well as the long-term application of herbicides to keep the site clear of weeds, spoils the land for future farming. For this reason, it is important that we explore alternative sites for new developments as the industry continues to grow,” Allen said.
Rather than looking to agricultural lands themselves, the researchers focussed on other potential lands, including developed areas within agricultural lands, like rooftops and transportation corridors. The research also looked at other lands unsuitable for crops like land that is now too salty to grow crops and areas previously contaminated with hazardous materials. The research also looked at reservoirs and irrigation channels that could be ideal for floating solar panels.
"The study highlights the wealth of sites for solar energy generation that don't conflict with farmland or protected areas," said Rebecca Hernandez, assistant professor of earth system science and ecology at UC Davis. "Since farming is an incredibly energy-intensive industry, the land sparing sites we identified could provide a win-win situation for both farmers who need more energy and the energy providers that wish to serve them."
The researchers said that if used for solar power the lands they identified could generate more than enough solar energy to California’s solar energy requirements. “In the state of California (CA), installing small solar energy technology and USSE, including photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, throughout the built environment could meet the state’s projected 2020 energy needs 3 to 5 times over,” the study found.Tweet