No, The US Is Not Going To Cover 22 Million Acres With Solar Panels

No The Us Is Not Going To Cover 22 Million Acres With Solar Panels

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A few days ago, the Biden administration announced it is making 22 million acres of public land available for solar development.“The Interior Department’s work to responsibly and quickly develop renewable energy projects is crucial to achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 — and this updated solar road map will help us get there in more states and on more lands across the West,” said Acting Deputy Secretary Laura Daniel-Davis. “Through historic investments from President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the Interior Department is helping build modern, resilient climate infrastructure that protects our communities from the worsening impacts of climate change.”

Immediately, those who listen to Faux News jumped into the fray and started wailing about how Biden’s plan would desecrate huge swaths of land. (Those same people would cheer if the announcement was about drilling oil and gas wells on those 22 million acres, however.) Even the normally reliable Guardian bought into the hysteria with this headline: “The US needs 22m acres for the solar energy transition.”

In reality, the US needs solar panels on about 700,000 acres of land in order to meet the administration’s goal of transitioning the nation to 100% renewable energy by 2035. At the present time, about 34,000 acres of public land are devoted to solar energy. Also, note that nothing in the Biden clean energy game plan requires all of that renewable energy from solar farms. Wind resources are also expected to make a major contribution to the goal.

700,000 acres translates into 1100 square miles. That seems like a lot but in total, the United States covers 3,532,316 square miles, which means only 0.031115 percent of it is needed in order for every person and business in America to get electricity from a source that does not threaten to make the climate emergency worse. The numbers don’t seem so scary when you look at the big picture.

NIMBY concerns will play a big part in determining which of those 22 million acres of public land are dedicated to solar power projects. The guidelines included in the administration’s plan put a priority on installations that are within 10 miles of an existing grid interconnection site. The cost to  build a transmission line from a solar farm 100 miles away from the nearest grid junction might be more than the cost of the solar farm itself.

Detractors mourn the loss of farmland, not realizing that income from solar and wind installations are helping farmers in the US stave off bankruptcy as the price of farm equipment, seeds, and fertilizer skyrocket. Food prices may be up but farming is still one of the hardest ways to make a living. Those high prices on grocery store shelves don’t always translate into more money in farmers’ pockets.

Edwards & Sanborn Solar & Storage Online

An example of what those new solar installations on public lands might look like is now in full operation on Edwards Air Force base and parts of Kern County, California. Begun in 2021 and activated in stages, it is now complete and in full operation. The project covers more than 4,600 acres and includes more than 1.9 million sol panels manufactured by First Solar. In total, the project can generates 875 MWdc of solar energy and has 3,287 megawatt-hours of energy storage with a total interconnection capacity of 1,300 megawatts.

The project supplies power to the city of San Jose, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, the Clean Power Alliance, and Starbucks, among others. A portion of the project is situated on the Edwards Air Force Base and was the largest public-private collaboration in U.S. Department of Defense history. The project uses LG Chem, Samsung, and BYD batteries.

Terra-Gen designed the project and Mortenson built it. “Now fully operational, this facility is a transformational project in the industry and is providing resiliency to the grid” said Brian Gorda, vice president of engineering at Terra-Gen in a press release. “The Mortenson team was tasked with an extremely difficult goal to build this project, and they proved to be the right partner for the job. We are excited to bring Edwards & Sanborn online and benefiting the people of California.”

In total, more than 1,000 skilled workers contributed to the project and achieved outstanding safety results, which included more than a million hours injury-free and a safety award by the California Association of General Contractors. “Mortenson is honored to help Terra-Gen deliver the Edwards & Sanborn project and provide the region with clean, resilient power” said Mark Donahue, senior vice president at Mortenson. “I’m proud of the world-class facility our team designed, built and commissioned for Terra-Gen.”

Perhaps the highest accolade for the newly completed Edwards & Sanborn Solar & Energy park comes from Brigadier General William Kale, commander of the Air Force civil engineering center at Edwards Air Force base. “Only in America can we take barren land, embrace the power of the sun, and create an engineering marvel. So, take the time to reflect, see the great work that was done, and understand the significance of this project and what it can lead to. Hopefully, this is just the spark.”

The Takeaway

General Kale is correct. The Edwards & Sanborn facility is proof what wonders can be created by a properly planned solar power and energy storage facility. The climate emergency is not getting any less important. Global emissions continue rising as the nations of the world pour more and more pollution into the atmosphere. The Biden goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 is bold. The fact that it is ambitious makes it no less necessary.

We as a society can no longer afford to use our energy resources in a profligate way. There is too much at stake for future generations. “Renewable energy on public lands can be a win-win-win. It’s imperative and it’s possible,” Justin Meuse, a campaigner at the Wilderness Society told The Guardian.

Will there be discussions and disagreements about where and how new solar projects on public land should be built? Of course there will. The needs of the larger community need to be considered as well as the protection of native flora and fauna. But as President Kennedy advised us at the start of the Apollo project, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Decarbonizing the economies of the world’s nations will be the hardest thing humans have ever done — and the most necessary.

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