Made in the Shade

This is how it typically goes with solar arrays: We build them on open space rather than in developed areas. That is, they overwhelmingly occupy croplands, arid lands, and grasslands, not rooftops or parking lots.

                                                ~ Richard Conniff

I live in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, part of Colorado’s Front Range, and from the top you get this great aerial view of my town, Golden, and the whole west side of the Denver metro area. There’s still a lot of green space (brown in winter), but developed land and paved surfaces constitute a large part of the vista. Reporter Bruce Finley reports about a Denver Post study, “Large areas of Denver overhauled to sustain an exploding population now are so built up and paved over that residents rapidly are losing contact with nature. Excluding the undeveloped area around the airport, nearly half the land in Denver’s city limits is now paved or built over — up from less than 20 percent in the mid-1970s … denser urbanization exacerbates climate-driven heat waves.”

Contrary to its reputation, Denver lies on the plains, surrounded by suburbs and exurbs, and is a pretty green city with generally large lots and many street trees. Recently, however, large solar arrays are being built to take advantage of Colorado’s naturally sunny skies and to edge out coal or natural gas power generation. I have observed that most of these arrays are placed on undisturbed ground.

Richard Conniff notes, “It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land than on rooftops or in parking lots. And building alternative power sources fast and cheap is critical in the race to replace fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change. It’s also easier to manage a few big solar farms in an open landscape than a thousand small ones scattered across urban areas.”

However, urban solar arrays on developed lands have several benefits. Richard Conniff reports, “Undeveloped land is a rapidly dwindling resource, and what’s left is under pressure to deliver a host of other services we require from the natural world — growing food, sheltering wildlife, storing and purifying water, preventing erosion, and sequestering carbon, among others The appeal of parking lots and rooftops, by contrast, is that they are abundant, close to customers, largely untapped for solar power generation, and on land that’s already been stripped of much of its biological value.”

He also notes, “’floatovoltaics’ — solar panels floating on inland canals, wastewater lagoons, and other water bodies — are cheaper to build and more efficient because of natural cooling. In some circumstances, they also benefit wildlife, attracting herons, grebes, cormorants, and other waterfowl, probably to feed on fish attracted to the shade underneath.”

As noted by Paige Bennett, “A new study finds that installing solar farms … can also double as thriving pollinator habitats if land owners allow meadows to grow around the solar panels … These lands could become meadows, rather than turf, cutting down land management costs for maintaining grass and other interventions. Meadows could also support four times more bumblebees compared to land covered in turf grass.”

She continues, “Another 2021 university study, in collaboration with Ludong University in China and University of California Davis in the U.S., found that solar farms produce ‘cool islands,’ reducing temperatures by about 2.3°C (36.14°F) 100 meters around the solar farm. Cooling effects on a lesser scale extend up to 700 meters around the solar farm.”

Researcher Damian Carrington reports, “Contact with nature in cities significantly reduces feelings of loneliness, according to a team of scientists … Loneliness is a major public health concern, their research shows, and can raise a person’s risk of death by 45% — more than air pollution, obesity or alcohol abuse … Natural places in cities could reduce loneliness by enhancing feelings of attachment to a place, or by providing more opportunity to socialise, the researchers said.”

He quotes Johanna Gibbons, part of the research team, “Cities are probably the only habitat that is increasing at a high rate. So we should be creating urban habitats where people can thrive. Nature is a critical component of that because, I believe deep in our souls, there are really deep connections with natural forces.”

Solar arrays on developed spaces seems like a fantastic idea. As Finley stated, “parking lots, long a drain on retail budgets and a blight on the urban landscape, will instead belatedly begin to play their part in generating power — and shading the world, if not saving it.”

Maybe we should give it a try.

Additional Information:

Paige Bennett, Solar Farms Could Boost Bumblebee Populations, Study Says, Dec. 13, 2021, SCIENCE

Damian Carrington, Contact With Nature In Cities Reduces Loneliness, Study Shows, December 20, 2021, The Guardian

Richard Conniff, Why Putting Solar Canopies on Parking Lots Is a Smart Green Move, November 22, 2021, YaleEnvironment360

Bruce Finley, Concrete Metropolis, 1/13/2019, The Denver Post

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