Is bigger solar better solar?


editors-blog-entry3The controversy over large-scale solar projects is heating up, especially in the California desert, where environmentalists and others are seeking to alter, stall, or halt huge proposed solar plants in multiple places.

In fact, California Senator Diane Feinstein recently introduced legislation to establish two national monuments on federal land in the Mojave Desert, a measure which would potentially, as some have put it, “kill” more than a dozen solar and wind farms proposed for the area.

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On the other side, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – arguably one of the greenest Republicans around, and certainly the highest profile green Republican in the U.S. – is making observations like this:

“They say that we want renewable energy, but we don’t want you to put it anywhere. I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”

Meanwhile, anti-renewable energy folks are gleefully looking on, hoping that the renewable energy movement implodes.

What gives?

Is solar always green?
The “easy” answer is that solar is green no matter how you size it, or where you put it.

That’s Arnold’s answer. And it’s the answer of those in the solar industry and in the utility industries who are pushing large-scale utility projects in various places around the U.S. and the world.

The more nuanced – and less simplistic – answer is that while solar might be greener than coal and oil, it is not inherently green. It does matter how – and where you do – solar.

The more reflective view notes there are plenty of places to put solar besides fragile desert ecosystems. For instance, in urban spots like parking lots, on warehouse rooftops, and, of course, on residential rooftops.

Putting solar where most of the energy will be drawn makes more sense from a power distribution and electricity grid perspective. Placing solar panels over black-top parking lots and on roof tops is also clearly more environmentally friendly than erecting vast solar arrays in ecosystems like the desert, which, contrary to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s apparent view, harbors plenty of environmental diversity.


Of course, it’s a lot more complicated to put solar on private property in densely populated urban areas than to put it up on desert “wasteland”. It’s also likely be more expensive, at least for large companies and utilities.

Distributive solar is democratic
Finally, there are power issues – as in the power of those large companies and utilities.

They clearly favor large-scale solar projects. That’s because a large-scale approach keeps them in charge of power production. In contrast, a distributive approach with solar panels housed on millions of rooftops and covering tens of thousands of parking lots puts power production in the hands of the people.

In other words, distributive solar is, dare I say, rather democratic, far more so than the centralized, top-down power production system we have now.

They say that we want renewable energy, but we don’t want you to put it anywhere. I mean, if we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.
–California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

It is the localized, democratic nature of distributive solar that, for me, provides its greatest appeal and which makes it far more attractive to me than large-scale solar projects in places like the Mojave Desert.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be an “either-or”. Maybe we can have plenty of local, distributed solar on rooftops – which will allow potentially millions of people to power electric cars essentially by themselves – plus plenty of solar carports in Wal-Mart parking lots and large-scale utility solar projects.

Maybe we “need” to have both.

At this point I’m unsure, although we will certainly be researching the large-scale vs. distributive solar issue further at SolarChargedDriving.Com.

Will large-scale solar kill local, distributive solar?
In the end, it seems to me that the pendulum is likely to swing to large-scale solar over distributive solar – because the large-scale solar model is like the one we have now with coal, natural gas and nuclear, which place power production in the hands of the few rather than the many.

However, if environmentalists successfully challenge the tendency in our society to over-simplify and rush things – including large-scale solar, the pendulum could swing in the other direction.

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No doubt some will suggest that slowing, stalling, or halting huge solar plants in the desert will slow, stall, or halt solar growth altogether. That’s essentially what Gov. Schwarzenegger suggests in his “I-can’t-believe-‘they’-are-opposing-solar-what’s-wrong with-‘them’ ” commentary.

Arnold’s is the rhetoric of “either-or”. Either we do it THIS way – which, also, “clearly” is the best way, and, of course the “only” way, or it CANNOT be done.

Arnold’s wrong.

The nuanced answer to whether to do large solar plants in the desert is the correct answer.

But it’s not likely to be a popular one. At least not in a country like the United States, which overwhelmingly prefers to reduce a complex, nuanced world to simple, black-and-white terms.

After all, it’s a lot easier to label something as “good” OR “bad” and plough blindly ahead than to reflect on the implications of doing so, or on the alternatives that exist to a plough-ahead-at-all-costs approach.


Additional reading on large-scale solar debate

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