Let’s Look At Jimmy Carter’s Solar Farm

Just a little loop back to my article wondering about the ecological impact of solar farms on the bigger environment. And if you haven’t, I suggest you read the link provided in the comments by democurmudgen. You’ll see solar farmers share my concerns and are working to develop dual use farming.

Here is a sample picture from a ten acre install on President Jimmy Carter’s property. It doesn’t look exactly environmentally friendly…solar panels over grass. Hey! Get off my lawn. So there does need to be some serious discussion about the best way to harvest the sun and the best way to protect the earth at the same time!

Solar Power: Be Careful What You Ask For.

Solar power is one of the major renewable energy sources being touted and rapidly developed for replacing carbon based power generation systems. Yes, by all means, once the panels are built, they seem to be carbon neutral. A good thing…but let’s not pretend that solar power is benign.

Just recently the Wisconsin Public Service Commission approved two large solar power projects for Wisconsin. One near the driftless area and one near Two Rivers.

Wisconsin will produce five times as much power from the sun, by one estimate, with the addition of two solar projects approved Thursday.

The two projects are projected to cost $390 million.

Wisconsin had about 103 megawatts of solar power at the end of last year, estimates Renew Wisconsin, which promotes renewable energy.
The two projects approved Thursday, by comparison, will add a total of 450 megawatts of generating capacity.

That’s enough power for roughly 120,000 households.

Hey, cool right? Well maybe. And the PSC is watching costs so that consumers don’t end up paying exorbitant rate increases to fund construction of these solar farms. But there’s that one word in my previous sentence that gives me pause…farms. These installations will consume a significant amount of farm land. So are we adding new pressures on farmers in Wisconsin just when they are already suffering under the strain of low dairy prices, tariffs, flooding, and increased competition? Will farmland become so attractive to solar power advocates that we price our farmers off the land?

He (PSC Commissioner Mike Huebsch) also noted that the two projects will require a total of about 5,000 acres.

“Farming and farmland use is something that is deep in the heart of state, and it is not something we should take lightly,” Huebsch said during the hearing. “This is a significant issue that we need to be cognizant of as we move forward.”

Can we find better locations for solar panels than farmland? Parking lots? Additional rooftops? ??

And I didn’t see anything about an environmental impact study in the article linked above. There will certainly be an environmental impact. We know what wildlife and plant life lives on farms. We know the impact of livestock. We know what crops are grown and how they affect the environment. We watch for runoff. We watch out for wetlands (well except for the former governor). We watch out for woodlots.

But what happens when we replace fields of grain with fields of solar panels? Do we reduce the temperature at ground level significantly enough to change the micro-environment? If you think I am being silly, you certainly have been aware since childhood that standing in the shade of a tree in your yard is cooler than standing in direct sunlight. How does plant life change? You certainly have to provide ground cover beneath the panels to prevent soil erosion…rain water needs to be accounted for and soaked in where ever possible. So what do we need for vegetation? Partial shade plants? Full shade plants? Are there native plants we can use?

Trees??? What about trees? We can’t have them shading the panels or blowing over onto them…or depositing leaves on them. We don’t want to lose one of nature’s most effective carbon sinks.

So when rain runs off the panels, what happens? Do we need landscaping to prevent creating divots under the ends of the panels? Do we have to account for potential riverlets? ??

And if we change the fauna, what happens to other species. What changes in insect life will we see? Additional loss of bees? Butterflies? Will we lose native insects as a food source for native birds? Will we lose birds?

A year or so ago, I saw an article about a solar array going up on acres and acres of desert in the southwest. I had similar concerns then. I know to most of you, that seems like a useless, desolate place. But if you change the temperature at the ground and shade the indigenous plant life, what happens next? Do you change the weather patterns (apparently yes since solar panels are being considered to stop the growth of the Sahara desert)? The flora and fauna there tends to be more specific than what we have in Wisconsin.

I don’t feel the concerns are that big for urban roof tip arrays or those in parking lots. They aren’t changing the flora or fauna of their location. But if we are replacing agriculture with solar panels, what are the potential unintended consequences?

An Open Letter To WE Energies

As solar and wind power have come closer to mainstream electric generation environments…WE Energies had done everything in it’s power to prevent their growth in Wisconsin (btw: WE has a bank of solar panels on their downtown Milwaukee headquarters). For instance they’ve been trying to prevent private solar installers from putting panels on private homes and selling the power to the home owner and then selling the excess back to the grid. Obviously this puts WE at a disadvantage since they support the grid and buy the excess electricity at retail since the meter runs backwards when power is pushed back out. But this all seems akin to a 1909 buggy whip salesman trying to prevent the construction of gas stations…maybe WE should try THIS…buy the gas station!

In a new low-income development that replaced a trailer park here, rooftop solar panels sparkle in the sun while backup batteries quietly hum away in utility closets.

About an hour away, in Rutland, homes and businesses along a once-distressed corridor are installing the latest in energy-saving equipment, including special insulation and heat pumps.

And throughout Vermont, customers are signing up for a new program that will allow them to power their homes while entirely disconnected from the grid.

The projects are part of a bold experiment aimed at turning homes, neighborhoods and towns into virtual power plants, able to reduce the amount of energy they draw from the central electric system. But behind them are not green energy advocates or proponents of living off the land. Instead, it’s the local electric company, Green Mountain Power (emphasis mine).

This seems totally logical. The local utilities can easily grow their green footprint without having to build huge solar farms or wind farms and transmission lines. The basic infrastructure, their grid, is in place…all of the houses and businesses and industrial sites are already wired. They already have relationships with all of these customers. They can reduce their investments in additional power plants. They can reduce the competition for natural gas between power plants and individual users. They can start with those already inclined to go green. They can garner an absolute ton of good will and positive public relations. They can be ahead of the curve when green energy requirements start to get more serious again.

What do you say WE Energies?