Environmental Impacts of Utility-Scale Solar Energy


by Jincy Varughese

With utility-scale solar energy (USSE) systems growing in number internationally, many have researched the environmental impacts of such systems. Hernandez et al. (2014) reviews studies examining the environmental impacts of USSE on biodiversity, water, human health, and potential solutions to mitigate impact.

An indirect effect of USSE is that removal of vegetation as well as the fragmentation of land caused by inserting solar panels and transmission lines can destroy habitats and disrupt the migration of animals, thus disturbing the gene pool. As a result, USSE systems are intentionally sited in areas where biodiversity impact is low. However, in some situations, repatriation and translocation of native plant and animal species are required but these processes generally have a low success rate (<20%), especially for birds, which cannot be easily relocated and are attracted to parts of USSE. Additionally, climate change can alter these habitats even more; predicting these changes and the response of species to climate change involves a high level of uncertainty, thus complicating translocation and repatriation further.

Another disadvantage of USSE is that concentrated solar power systems with wet cooling require copious amounts of water-more water than coal and natural gas consumption combined. This can strain arid environments and can alter the ecosystems in these environments. Utilizing dry cooling which requires 90-95% less water allows a more sustainable option in arid climates.

USSE power plants also pose health risks to humans. Soil erosion from vegetation removal can increase levels of PM2.5 in the air and can spread soil borne pathogens which can potentially contaminate the air as well as water reservoirs. Additionally, photovoltaic cells contain silica dust, cadmium, and arsenic. If these cells are damaged, human exposure to toxics can result. Leaks can also harm human health. USSE power plants involve the use of dust suppressants, cooling liquids, herbicides, and heat transfer fluids-any of which, if leaked into ground water, can have significant public health effects.

However, multiple co-benefit opportunities exist for sustainable USSE development. Utilizing degraded lands avoids some ecological impact issues and co-locating USSE in agricultural areas allows for efficient land use. Additionally, in agricultural areas, livestock can graze around USSE systems, eliminating the need to remove vegetation completely. Floatovoltaics systems are another from of USSE designs which are increasingly implemented globally and conserve water.

It is important to note that these environmental impacts have yet to be weighted against the benefits of utility scale solar energy systems. However, recent research highlights the growing need to address these issues in order to ensure long term sustainability.

Hernandez, R.r., S.b. Easter, M.l. Murphy-Mariscal, F.t. Maestre, M. Tavassoli, E.b. Allen, C.w. Barrows, J. Belnap, R. Ochoa-Hueso, S. Ravi, and M.f. Allen. “Environmental Impacts of Utility-scale Solar Energy.” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews: 766-79. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/257200435_Environmental_impacts_of_utility-scale_solar_energy

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