By GREG WALCHER
For the third time in as many years, a major proposed solar plant in rural Virginia has been defeated. The “Maroon Solar” project has withdrawn its application near the small town of Culpeper, after the local planning commission unanimously declined to recommend it to the county commissioners. That action followed a contentious hearing with dozens of local residents in attendance, almost all opposed. The out-of-state company wanted to build a $200 million, 149-megawatt project that would have covered 1,700 acres (zoned for agriculture) near the Rapidan River with photovoltaic (PV) solar panels.
County policy limits solar installations to 300 acres, in an effort to maintain the rural and agricultural history and culture of the area. Anyone who has lived in Virginia knows it isn’t a prime location anyway, for any technology dependent on sunlight. And that begs the question — if Americans really want to switch to solar power, where should they put it?
In my view, historic rural communities surrounded by productive farmland are a poor choice for massive arrays of solar panels. Some advocates suggest the great deserts of the Southwest, where the sun shines most often. There are government maps identifying the best potential regions for various energy resources, including the most abundant coal (Wyoming), oil (Alaska), natural gas (Texas), hydropower (California) and oil shale (Colorado). The Southwest has by far the best potential for utility-scale solar. A swath of America stretching from Grand Junction to Yuma, and including most of western Colorado, southeastern Utah, western New Mexico, all of Arizona and Nevada, and much of Southern California, gets more days of sunshine than any other part of America.
Still, today’s PV solar technology requires miles of land to generate enough electricity to make much difference in the nation’s power demand. When I was at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, our agency experts estimated that the solar panels required to power the entire city of Denver would cover at least two counties, clearly unrealistic. A similar power industry estimate said powering Metropolitan New York with solar panels would require covering an area as large as Arizona. Even though they have perhaps the best sun resource in the U.S., nobody ever asked the people of Arizona if they would sacrifice their state to benefit New York. No community will ever voluntarily agree to be a national sacrifice zone. In fact, wherever large solar installations are proposed, local opposition is fierce.
Ironically, the group organizing the opposition in Culpeper was an environmental group called “Citizens for Responsible Solar.” An ironic name, since the group has spent virtually all its time and resources opposing every proposed solar project there. Irony aside, the group makes several legitimate points about the impact such giant solar farms have on agriculture, wildlife, water, and the historic character of a community. It also opposes taxpayer subsidies for such solar farms, as enormous and unjustifiable gifts to giant corporations. Local residents agree — they will always oppose such massive construction in their backyards. So where does large-scale solar power fit?
Perhaps it doesn’t. Maybe the promise of solar technology will always lie in small installations, and not industrial or utility scale ones. The growth of solar power has been phenomenal in recent years, but primarily on rooftops of homes, small business, factories, schools, and government facilities. Airports in Chattanooga and Las Vegas are powered by dedicated solar installations. So are stadiums in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and San Diego, along with convention centers in Nashville and several other cities, and thousands of homes.
The greatest promise for PV solar panels is on parking lots. A Lawrence Berkeley National Lab study says 35 to 50 percent of cities are covered with pavement, 40 percent of which is parking lots. They absorb and retain heat, creating “urban heat islands,” and drastically increase the need for air conditioning. Solar panel roofs are the latest and greatest concept for cooling the cars, charging the electric ones, and providing power to the grid without destroying farmland. So far, “solar carports” across America only generate a combined total of perhaps 600 megawatts of electricity, less than a single large coal-fired power plant. They are very expensive to build, but the potential is huge for providing small-scale renewable power, without large-scale political battles.
If energy production facilities were invisible, these political battles would never need to be fought. Conceivably the next generation of leaders can focus as much time and energy on that as today’s leaders spend arguing about where — if anywhere — to allow anything.
Greg Walcher is president of the Natural Resources Group and author of “Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take it Back.” He is a Western Slope native.