Tricky Questions on Solar Energy

Authored By 
Nikki Springer
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
Publication date 
December 16, 2015

(Updated January 20, 2016)

As a doctoral student with a dissertation on solar energy infrastructure and development, I’m continually asked a number of questions from those that are skeptical, or just curious, of the potential of solar energy in creating a more sustainable energy portfolio for the United States.   This post, the first of two on this topic, attempts not to provide definitive answers, but rather solid food for thought, on some of the most thought-provoking questions I continue to contemplate.

Where to put it?

Rooftops. Close to load centers – AKA cities. On post-industrial sites, such as mining pits or landfills. Or in the middle of nowhere. There are lots of options in choosing a site for renewable energy infrastructure, and lots of reasons to choose one site over another, depending on who is doing the choosing and who is financing the project, and much of my dissertation explores the competing considerations involved in siting a project and the different factors that go into determining where the optimal locations are.     

Solar resource, the amount of sunlight that hits a specific point on the earth’s surface in a given amount of time, is a significant factor in determining optimal project location, however many others can be just as important, including the distance to load centers and the availability and capacity of transmission lines, existing infrastructure like highways and utilities, land price and ownership, presence of protected or endangered species, and even political and public resistance.  Areas of the Mojave Desert in California and Nevada have some of the highest solar resources on the planet, but building a solar array there requires daily busloads of workers from cities hundreds of miles away and the construction of new transmission lines back to those same cities, the cost and permitting of which is often prohibitive. 

Many supporters of solar energy advocate for rooftop solar only, oftentimes called “distributed” solar, as it takes up little to no land or habitat, has minimal environmental impacts, and is used primarily on site, while the excess can be stored in batteries or sold back to the grid under net-metering agreements with power companies.  Others prefer utility-scale solar: large projects built by private developers that sell power directly to utility companies and spread the cost amongst all customers and make solar energy available to those that don’t have the financial means to cover the capital costs of the technology or don’t have the ability to install panels on their home, apartment, or office.

Do we like to look at it?

With a background in Landscape Architecture, I’m particularly interested in the aesthetic impact of infrastructure in the landscape and the way that culture shapes our acceptance – or rejection – of certain elements of infrastructure.  Lake Mead, for example, the artificial lake created by the Hoover Dam in Boulder City, NV, is now a National Recreation Area under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation reports that nearly 1 million tourists visit the Hoover Dam each year.

Somewhat ironically, even the power lines that serve the Hoover Dam are protected under the Historic Preservation Act; review of the National Register of Historic Places nomination form, filed in 1985, reveals the Dam was nominated for both “commerce” and “engineering” significance. As a nation, we have embraced the Hoover Dam not only as a feat of engineering, but as a key piece of infrastructure in enabling the settlement and prosperity of the west. Windmills, in certain contexts, have become so beloved they are unquestionably part of several national identities; think rainbow tulip fields in Holland or Don Quixote’s silhouette as he rides off into the Spanish sunset. 

Where does that leave solar energy?  Will these massive circular fields of mirrors in the desert ever garner the same national pride? Many complain of the intense and distracting reflection from the mirrors as one drives across the west, and several projects have been denied because of their proximity to a proposed Route 66 National Monument in the works, led by California Senator Diane Feinstein. The National Parks Service, the same federal agency that presides over the Hoover Dam, has petitioned against several other proposed solar projects, in part, because of their visibility from key vistas within National Parks, including Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve. 

Solar energy infrastructure undeniably changes the landscape and does so with unapologetic magnificence.  In 2012, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay chronicling the construction of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating Facility (ISEGS) by photographer Jamey Stillings that is both breathtaking and frightening, at once capturing the marvelous feat of human engineering and the disturbing impact we impose on the landscape. Is this type of energy generation a part of our future legacy?  Will millions of tourists visit ISEGS 100 years from now? Or will it take the fate of substations and transmission lines, infrastructure that is primarily considered a determent to the landscape and reduces property values more than often than not?  And who decides?

Nikki Springer is an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow, and is a joint degree student working toward a PhD at FES and a MBA at SOM.  Her research focuses on the interplay of environmental regulation, corporate incentives, and ecosystem planning in the context of national-scale infrastructure.

Area of study 
Energy & Environment