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Green Duel: Trees vs. Solar Farms

Robert Amundsen's picture
Director, Energy Management New York Institute of Technology

Robert N. Amundsen, Ph.D., CEM, LEED AP BD+C Director, Energy Management, NYIT  Dr. Amundsen is the Director of the M.S. in Energy Management program at the School of Engineering and Computing...

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  • Aug 3, 2017

Solar energy enjoys wide support, regardless of political party affiliation or economic class. It is difficult to find fault with a technology which captures free energy from the sun, and quietly converts it into valuable electricity.

We often see solar panels on rooftops of homes, schools and businesses. Combined, in the U.S., they produce enough power for over 5 million homes. There are over 200,000 solar jobs in the U.S.; some estimates are even higher.

More than half of the states in the U.S. have adopted Renewable Energy Portfolio standards, which require utilities to buy power from non-fossil sources. For example, in New York State, the Clean Energy Standard requires utilities to obtain 50% of their electricity from eligible clean energy sources by 2030.

These regulatory pressures have utilities scrambling to line up sufficient power capacity from renewable sources. They are exploring options for “green power” from wind, solar, hydro and other types of clean energy.

Since the sun shines everywhere, the real limiting factor in most regions is availability of land. Sparsely populated areas have inexpensive land, and buyers can easily acquire large properties for use as “solar farms.” Hundreds or even thousands of solar panels can be installed.

Of course, the urban areas which are the largest consumers of power also have the highest prices for land. Potential sites are more expensive, and have stricter zoning requirements. The sites also tend to be smaller, because developers have already divided the last remaining large pieces of land.

The search for suitable sites focuses on finding pieces of land which are relatively inexpensive compared to surrounding properties. Since developed properties usually have greater economic value, attention has turned to undeveloped land. Often, these undeveloped sites are currently occupied by trees.

For example, a solar farm project in Jackson, NJ will cut down nearly 15,000 trees for a 21-megawatt solar facility. The Long Island Solar Farm in Upton, NY replaced 160 acres of trees with a 32-megawatt solar farm.

The Long Island Solar Farm is located at the Brookhaven National Lab (BNL). According to their website, the electricity generated by the solar farm will reduce CO2 emissions by 1.2 million metric tons over 40 years. The downside is that the removal of trees will cause CO2 sequestration losses of 33,680 metric tons over 40 years.

Nevertheless, a forest is more than a cold calculation. The Lake Pulaski solar project near Minneapolis clear cut hundreds of mature hardwood trees and replaced them with tens of thousands of solar panels. A proposed 13.8-megawatt solar farm in Ashaway, RI would require removal of 30,000 trees.

This has caused soul-searching and conflict among environmental groups. Ironically, their victorious campaigns to promote solar energy have had the unintended consequence of destroying beloved trees. Often, local activists have split into pro-solar and pro-tree groups.

The U.S. Forest Service has a brochure called: “Trees Pay Us Back”:

For example, a large tree can increase a home’s property value by 10%. Shade from trees can reduce air conditioning bills by over 50%. Trees also provide wildlife habitat, erosion control and air pollution reduction.

Alternative sites for solar panels include flat roofs and non-forested land. One option is “solar carports” which put canopies over parking lots and cover them with solar panels. Solar carports provide shade for vehicles, and can include charging stations for electric vehicles. Therefore, land can be used for parking and solar energy production simultaneously.

A study led by psychologist Omid Kardan of the University of Chicago showed reductions in mental health problems and cardio-metabolic conditions in urban neighborhoods with more trees. Having 10 more trees in a city block was comparable to having $10,000 more income or being 7 years younger:

For people who want to be richer and younger, I recommend keeping solar panels on rooftops, and spending more time with trees.

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