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?


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