We mustn’t think of environmentalism and sustainability as single issues. They encompass a variety of issues. Renewable energy is one set of priorities. Healthy forests are another. Utility-scale solar farms have displaced thousands of acres of forest land. It’s one case of conflicting values in environmentalism.
I don’t intend to take sides. I want to look at some of the nuances of this sustainability controversy. Then I will briefly mention more conflicting values.
Two instances of conflict between forests and solar farms
In March 2019, Georgetown University announced it intended to get half of its electricity from a new solar farm. Building the farm would require clearing 210 acres of forest. Opposition arose quickly. Solar power vs forests represents but one example of conflicting values in environmentalism.
The developer insisted the tradeoff was environmentally sound. It would not displace a natural forest. The former agricultural land had been logged before. The solar farm, he said, would reduce greenhouse gases by the equivalent of planting more than 429,000 trees. That many trees would take 30,000 acres.
Nonetheless, the state of Maryland denied a permit to build it.
On the other hand, a Massachusetts developer has clear cut more than a dozen acres of forest to build a solar farm. Those were large, mature oaks and maples.
Just comparing various power sources, solar power doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. That’s a major selling point. But will solar farms really save more emissions than all those trees? And if so, does that offset the loss of the forests’ other benefits?
Massachusetts is a leader in solar power. It generates more than most other states. But solar power there has had a high cost in taking out forests. Besides taking in carbon dioxide, those forests used to absorb rain. They cleaned the water and reduced flooding.
Solar farms took a quarter of all the natural land developed between 2012 and 2017. Environmentalists have become alarmed. In response, the state has started to issue new rules to limit siting solar farms on undeveloped land.
Solar developers protest that such curtailment will eliminate 80% of projects already approved, along with lots of jobs. Does that represent a conflict between sustainability and jobs?
One huge problem with utility-scale solar farms
In his critique of the Democrats’ climate plan, Michael Shellenberger points out that solar and wind farms require up to 400 times as much land as nuclear or natural gas plants that produce the same amount of electricity.
Efficiency has improved and will continue to do so. Unfortunately, solar panels have only become 2-3% more efficient over the past decade. Even a 10% improvement in that time would only reduce necessary land use from 400 times as much as nuclear and gas to 360 times.
He gets his figures from the highly respected energy expert Vaclav Smil. A study from Leiden University puts the figure at more like 90 to 100 times the space of a natural gas plant. It’s still huge difference.
At present, the US uses 0.5% of its land to produce energy. Shellenberger estimates that moving to 100% solar and gas would require somewhere between a quarter and half of all the land in the country.
Rooftops remain an underused source of land for solar panels. Especially the rooftops of large structures like shopping malls and factories.
I’m sure a lot of people would welcome a canopy of solar panels over large parking lots, too. Besides providing electricity, they could protect cars parked underneath them from direct sunlight. The cars wouldn’t get as hot inside while the owners shop.
Retired landfills could house both solar farms and wind farms. But is all of that combined enough? A growing number of solar projects have required clearing of forests and farmland.
Similar problems with wind farms
Meanwhile, wind turbines have gotten so large that they have become noisy eyesores. They destroy the quality of life for nearby residents and keep tourists away. At least, since the turbines must be so far apart, it’s possible to operate agricultural farms on the same land.
Large-scale wind farms also pose a threat to biodiversity. They kill lots of birds. Wind power advocates point out that housecats kill more birds than wind turbines. But housecats don’t kill eagles, condors, and other large species that reproduce slowly.
It appears that floating platforms far out to sea can support large wind farms without the disadvantages of land-based or near-shore wind farms. Environmental tradeoffs remain to be seen.
Some conclusions about conflicting values in environmentalism
It’s all too easy to get excited about some issue and support it with tunnel vision. It’s harder to recognize conflicting values in environmentalism. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is a good thing. So is the biodiversity inherent in a mature forest. It appears that sometimes, building a solar farm means cutting down a lot of trees. Other times, saving forest land means not expanding renewable energy.
Wind energy, a kind of renewable energy, is a good thing. So is protecting endangered species. Another case of conflicting values in environmentalism.
Safe and abundant clean water is a good thing. So is using less energy and using it more efficiently. Using desalination to supply freshwater uses energy intensively. Here, too, conflicting values will produce winners and losers. The same value will not prevail in every individual case.
Building dams to create reservoirs can increase the local drinking water supply, but dams carry their own environmental negatives.
What’s more, sustainability has three so-called pillars: environmental, economic, and social. They should all work together. Indeed, nothing can be truly sustainable that doesn’t somehow satisfy all three. But concentrating too much on any one set of goals can set back achieving others without careful and thoughtful planning and implementation.
It’s best to recognize and deal with conflicting values as early in processes as possible. That way, perhaps developers will come up with solutions before spending a lot of money coming up with a project that will run into opposition.
As woods give way to solar farms, state to issue controversial rules that could harm solar industry / David Abel, Boston Globe. July 12, 2020
Democrats’ New Climate Plan Will Kill Endangered Species, Environmentalists Fear, June 30, 2020
First goal of UN sustainability targets should be to not conflict with each other / The Conversation. October 7, 2014.
Utility-scale solar vs trees: a fight that shouldn’t exist / Ryan Austin, Earthtechling. May 15, 2019
Solar farm. Public domain, US Air Force photo
Clearcutting. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons
Wind farm. © Copyright Stephen Craven and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence