Solar energy sites across California are harming animal habitats, wildlife and farms, according to a new study by the Carnegie Institution of Science.
Researchers found that 85 percent of solar sites are built on undeveloped natural landscapes and not already developed land. The Carnegie study claims more than 28 percent of solar plants are built on pastures or cropland. The study confirms concerns among environmentalists that solar farms are harming natural landscapes.
“We were surprised to find so few installations were sited in place in the built environment, close to where energy is consumed,” Rebecca Hernandez, lead author of the study, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
California has been hailed as a leader in green energy development. The Golden State is the largest solar energy-producing state in the country and has 11 times more installed solar energy capacity than North Carolina, the second-largest solar state. California’s government also mandates utilities get 33 percent of their power from solar energy. But are all those solar panels harming California’s unique landscape and wildlife?
“Solar energy in developed areas, or for example on contaminated lands, would have great environmental co-benefits, but this is not what is being emphasized,” Hernandez said in a statement. “Instead, we see that ‘big solar’ is competing for space with natural areas. Knowing this is vital for understanding and creating predictions of a rapidly changing global energy landscape.”
Solar sites are chosen based on access to transmission lines, land availability, community support and permitting laws. Despite this, Hernandez’s study found 19 percent of solar sites were built far away from transmission lines, which suggests poor planning and execution by the California government.
The majority of solar sites are concentrated in California’s Central Valley, Imperial Valley and the Mojave Desert. The study underpins many of solar power’s unintended environmental consequences — namely, that it uses lots of arable land.
“Anyone would think that it’s quite oxymoronic that a solar energy plant could actually create or cause environmental degradation,” said Hernandez. “That’s what is happening.”