Greens Need to Get Clear on Clean Energy

August 4, 2022

If we’re going to make progress on deploying the critical clean energy. infrastructure we need to save a livable planet, lefties and greens are going to have to get on the same page, get informed, and stop putting the perfect ahead of the good.

Right now, the biggest obstacle to the deployment of clean energy is local, NIMBY opposition, which mostly springs, to be sure out of the swamp of Facebook misinformation (“wind turbine cancer”, “solar will pollute water”) pushed by far right wing groups, and often coordinated by Fossil fuel interests.
Too often, though, what I call soft-headed lefties or greenies are being sucked into the anti-clean energy vortex.

A lot of these well-meaning types are being specifically targeted by fossil fuel funded bad actors with the “Save our Farmland” meme. It is not well founded.

I recently spoke to Missy Stults, who is Sustainability and Innovations Director for the City of Ann Arbor, MI. Ann Arbor” is a frontline community leading in the clean energy transition, and in the course of that, has done a survey of every conceivable surface in the city where a solar panel could be placed, even some places that were less than ideal for efficiency. They came up with a total generating capacity of 400 MW.
The demand currently needed to power the city is 440 MW.
In an “all electric” future, where transportation, HVAC and everything else is electrified, that demand could rise to 800 MW.

Rooftop solar is a great thing, we need it, and we need to shape regulatory policy to make rooftop, parking lot, and small solar as ubiquitous as we can – but it is not enough. We are going to need utility scale solar and wind.

A little math helps here.

My state of Michigan’s largest Utility, CMS Energy (most call it “Consumers Energy”), might build, under one scenario, 8000 MW of solar capacity by 2040.
5 acres/MW x 8000 = 40,000 Acres.

Sound like a lot? Michigan has 10 million acres of agricultural land.
So an ambitious solar buildout like this amounts to 0.4 percent of that total. You can do similar simple calculations for your state. Even if you, for instance, double the build, or double the amount of land you think might be needed to 10 acres/MW, or assume a similar build from competing utility DTE – we’re still talking about tiny percentages – compared to things that more people have experience with, like golf courses (650 of them, times 150 acres = 97,500)

Or my favorite, ethanol production, which is something like 940,000 acres in Michigan, more than 2,500,000 acres in Indiana (!) – something we know is highly inefficient as far as energy production – and in any case is going to be going away as vehicles electrify.

All that said, solar developers have to be serious about building good projects that have serious plans for vegetation and pollination. Fortunately, there is a lot of good work being done in that area.

Fresh Energy:

When investing $1-$2 million per acre in solar panels, one tends to focus on the benefits directly generated by the new hardware — 100 percent fuel-free  energy with no moving parts. However—simply by using the right seed mix—each of these sites can also provide significant agricultural benefits related to storm water, soil, and crop pollination.

Writing in Cleantechnica, one of the world’s top cleantech-focucused news sites, engineer Jeff Broberg highlights the utility and specific benefits of using native plants on solar sites.

[Compared to row crops,] storm water runoff is reduced 23 percent for the 2-year storm (2.9 inches of rain) and 8 percent for the 100-year storm (7.8 inches of rain). The runoff reduction is dependent on soil types, slopes and existing land cover, but, we find these results are very typical. We believe the actual results will be better than the model suggests…

Further, we expect a mix of prairie plants to provide superior hydrologic performance compared to monocrop turf-grasses that are common on solar sites in some areas of the country. In 2008, the U.S. Geological Survey completed a five-year storm water study in cooperation with a consortium of 19 cities and towns in the area of Madison, Wisconsin that revealed “striking differences between turf and prairie vegetation.” The study found “prairie vegetation had greater median infiltration rates than those with turf grass,” and roots in the prairie vegetation plot were “found to a depth of 4.7 feet compared with 0.46 feet in the turf.”

Broberg went on to highlight how using native grasses and forbs on solar sites can benefit agricultural soils:

In addition to superior storm water management, native plants improve the soil with organic matter over the 20 to 30-year life the project, allowing microorganisms and soil fauna to recover after years of intensive compaction, pesticide and fertilizer application. And, over time, native plants out-compete weeds allowing ground cover to be maintained with just a single annual mow, reducing operating costs.

Published in science journal Ecology and Evolution, Dr. Hannah Feltham writes:

Research has also found that the abundance and diversity of pollinating species visiting crops are positively correlated with the availability of seminatural habitat nearby.

And from the heart of farming country, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture notes in its campaign to promote pollinator habitat on agricultural lands that one-third of our food production requires pollinators, as does livestock forage, and most wild plants that produce seeds.

As farmers and stakeholders throughout the agricultural industry increasingly embrace solar energy to diversify their revenue and reduce their energy costs, look for them to become increasingly savvy to the benefits—pollination, soil quality, and storm water management—that can be generated by what’s under and around the panels.


2 Responses to “Greens Need to Get Clear on Clean Energy”

  1. We had the same thing in the spring of 2021 in Montgomery County, Maryland, in the Washington DC suburbs, where a zoning amendment was proposed to allow solar on a small fraction of the county Agricultural Reserve, and it was fought and defeated by NIMBY opposition, who inserted poison pill amendments, basically neutering it.

    Environmentally friendly legislators were not happy.

    My position was that solar and ag can coexist happily, which has been born out by stories I keep seeing about agrivoltaics, where shade-loving crops are grown under panels. It works.

  2. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Hear hear and absolutely!!!

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