What level of environmental destruction are we willing to tolerate to meet the state’s renewable energy standards?
Photovoltaic and wind-energy systems play an important role in our energy mix but, like all technologies, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of developing these alternatives in our region and the nation at large.
Placing photovoltaic panels on rooftops of homes, warehouses, government buildings, parking lots, recovered brownfields, and landfills, is appropriate. Rooftop sites may have challenges but their negative impacts on topsoil, groundwater and ecology is minimal.
A 2016 report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) stated rooftop photovoltaic arrays in New England could generate more than 45% of local consumption; well beyond Rhode Island’s goal of 35% by 2035. (The report stated Providence, alone, can meet 42% of demand with rooftop solar.)
Bulldozing a forest to make room for a ground-based photovoltaic array, however, makes little long-range sense, especially in New England, where photovoltaic array output (in KWH/m2) is relatively low. The Southwest energy density provides an appropriate location for such ground-based arrays.
Why destroy forest vegetation and soil microorganisms that already remove large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere? Forests provide several additional “free services” to the region. Forest vegetation mitigates flooding by storing rainwater, holds topsoils in place, produces oxygen, manufactures complex sugars and, along with an assembly line of soil bacteria and fungi, releases fresh water through transpiration.
It takes about 500 years to generate one inch of topsoil; more if you factor in geological time. It is a relentless struggle against forces of entropy. This soil and the biodiversity of the forest would be gone, wiped clean, with the first sweep of a bulldozer blade.
Of importance also are the aesthetic benefits of a forested landscape; the fall foliage color, a peaceful walk in the shade of the woods or the chance to see wildlife in their element. Biodiversity is maintained in a forest, limiting species extinction. (For all these “free services” to the community, forest lands should receive “tax credits” but that is another issue.)
Replaced by an inert landscape of plastic and aluminum photovoltaic panels, herbicides and solvents will be added to the “dirt” to reduce plant growth and clean dust from panels. These, too, will run off into nearby streams, adding new problems and further degrading the local ecology.
You can “assign” a dollar value to a KWH generated by a ground-based photovoltaic array, but how do you value a dynamic forest ecosystem and all the “free services” it provides to the community? Is it only about the Rhode Island renewable energy goal? It is certainly not about CO2 and fossil-fuel reduction. Comparable dollars invested in conservation would far exceed life-cycle energy production of a solar array in New England.
We are at a critical point in this energy dialogue. We can achieve our Rhode Island goal and CO2 and fossil fuel reduction with rooftop arrays. And we can continue to conserve our unique ecological wealth. A win-win by any measure. Think about it.