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Can solar and wind farms hurt the environment?

The answer is yes, but a new study offers solutions of how America can generate enough renewable power to tackle climate change even if some of its most ecologically valuable landscapes are placed off-limits to solar and wind farms

Solar and wind have become just about the cheapest sources of new electricity on the market, but finding places to build all the clean energy we’ll need to limit global warming isn’t getting any easier.

As developers flood rural communities and remote landscapes with proposals for solar fields and wind turbines, they often face intense opposition from conservationists dedicated to protecting habitat for migratory birds, sage grouse and desert tortoises — and from local residents who see industrial energy infrastructure as a threat to their small-town way of life.

solar and wind farms

All of which brings us to a new study by Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group. The study took an expansive look at the long-term clean energy needs of 11 Western USA states — including the charging needs of tens of millions of electric cars — and the land available to produce that clean energy. That finding assumed the only places off-limits to solar and wind farms were areas already protected by law, such as national parks and wildlife refuges.

So the Nature Conservancy ran the models again, this time blocking renewable energy development in many other areas — including wetlands, critical habitat for endangered species and other lands identified by Nature Conservancy scientists as valuable for wildlife and humans, such as migration corridors and the best agricultural soils.

One of them is building fewer wind farms in the West’s windiest states, particularly Wyoming, and more solar farms in the sunny desert Southwest. Wind farms require a lot more land area to produce the same amount of power, in part because wind turbines need to be spaced far apart. Solar farms have a smaller overall footprint by comparison.

solar and wind farms

Another key strategy: building more solar panels and wind turbines on agricultural land.

Of course, reality is more complicated than a bunch of computer models. Agriculture is the economic cornerstone for many rural communities, not to mention the source of the food we eat.

For instance, developers who seek to build in less sensitive spots might be able to get government permits more quickly while reducing the likelihood of lawsuits. An earlier Nature Conservancy study, focused on California, found that solar farms proposed for lands with lower biodiversity got permitted nearly three times faster, helping accelerate the clean energy transition.

Still, there are ways to limit the damage. The more solar installations get built on lands already degraded by human activity — such as abandoned mines, Superfund sites, landfills and railroad corridors — the less pristine desert will be needed.

Solar panels on rooftops, warehouses and parking lots can also limit the need for desert development. The Nature Conservancy’s study assumes 35% of the West’s overall rooftop solar potential will actually get installed by 2050 — an ambitious target, although some rooftop solar supporters might argue we can do even better.

Read more about the potential of solar energy here.

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