According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will necessitate the addition of 630 gigawatts of new solar power and 390 gigawatts of new wind power per year by 2030 – four times the growth rate in 2020. “For solar power, it amounts to building the world’s largest current solar farm nearly every day,” reports Yale Environment 360.
The problem is that the rapid expansion of large-scale solar and wind farms requires enormous land acquisitions in a world where land is increasingly scarce. Green energy is competing with agriculture and urban expansion as it presses into green new pastures, and as valuable as renewable energies are, they are not more essential to human life than food and shelter, making the competition as complex as it is fierce.
To scientists and engineers, the solution is obvious: renewables have to become far more efficient. Capacity needs to increase at the same time that the physical footprint of renewables decreases. So far, the approaches to this problem have been piecemeal and highly-context specific. Many approaches have solved the competing needs of agriculture and solar energy by combining them through an approach called agrivoltaics. In Germany, farmers are growing hay in the furrows between rows of standing solar panels. In France, grapevines are growing in the shade of solar panels on vineyards, while in Japan it’s tea leaves that benefit from the panel-produced shade. In the United States, agrovoltaics have been aimed at delaying blooms to benefit late-season pollinators. And in many more places as far-flung and ecologically distinct as Canada and Australia, solar farms share pastures with sheep. It hasn’t all been hunky dory, however. The expansion of solar power into large tracts of land has been a litigious and contentious endeavor. Land tenure is a touchy subject, and solar expansion has awakened legions of NIMBYs across the globe. Many communities, from cities to Native American tribes, have fought the installation of large-scale solar farms in or near their borders. “As solar developers propose new, often sprawling projects in places like Kansas, Maine, Texas, Virginia, and elsewhere, local governments and activist groups are seeking to block them and often succeeding,” Reuters wrote earlier this year in a special report titled “U.S. solar expansion stalled by rural land-use protests. The report continues: ”They cite reasons ranging from aesthetics that would harm property values to fears about health and safety, and loss of arable land, farm culture, or wildlife habitat.
Now the Biden administration is quietly trying a new approach. Instead of moving into undeveloped lands, a provision of the new Inflation Reduction Act channels money to clean energy, especially in order to convert fossil fuel plants and other existing infrastructure into plants that run on nuclear or renewable energy. This could include turning existing dams into hydropower plants, old oil and gas wells into geothermal energy plants, old coal plants into sites for large batteries, old coal mines into solar farms. These provisions could also forge a new friendship between clean energy and rural America by bringing new jobs into places that have recently lost coal mines and plants, particularly in West Virginia, one of the country’s last bastions of coal.
While all of these efforts are making considerable inroads that should not be discounted, the world has a long way to go toward making renewable expansion easier, more efficient, and more popular. Finding new and innovative ways to shrink down renewables and make them synergistic with other land use needs should be a pressing priority for policymakers and scientists around the world. Renewable energy expansion is not a luxury, it’s a necessity in the same vein as agriculture and urban development.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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