Environmental Impacts of Utility-Scale Solar Energy
Renewable energy is a promising alternative to fossil fuel based energy, but its development can require a complex set of environmental tradeoffs. A recent increase in solar energy systems, especially large, centralized installations, underscores the urgency of understanding their environmental interactions. Synthesizing literature across numerous disciplines, the researchers review direct and indirect environmental impacts both beneficial and adverse of utility scale solar energy (USSE) development, including impacts on biodiversity, land use and land cover change, soils, water resources, and human health. Additionally, they review feedbacks between USSE infrastructure and land atmosphere interactions and the potential for USSE systems to mitigate climate change. Several characteristics and development strategies of USSE systems have low environmental impacts relative to other energy systems, including other renewables. We show opportunities to increase USSE environmental co benefits, the permitting and regulatory constraints and opportunities of USSE, and highlight future research directions to better understand the nexus between USSE and the environment. Increasing the environmental compatibility of USSE systems will maximize the efficacy of this key renewable energy source in mitigating climatic and global environmental change. Utility scale solar energy systems are on the rise worldwide, an expansion fueled by technological advances, policy changes, and the urgent need to reduce both our dependence on carbon intensive sources of energy and the emission of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Recently, a growing interest among scientists, solar energy developers, land managers, and policy makers to understand the environmental impacts both beneficial and adverse of USSE, from local to global scales, has engendered novel research and findings. This review synthesizes this body of knowledge, which conceptually spans numerous disciplines and crosses multiple interdisciplinary boundaries. The disadvantageous environmental impacts of USSE have not heretofore been carefully evaluated nor weighted against the numerous environmental benefits particularly in mitigating climate change and co benefits that solar energy systems offer. Indeed, several characteristics and development strategies of USSE systems have low environmental impacts relative to other energy systems, including other renewable energy technologies. Major challenges to the widespread deployment of USSE installations remain in technology, research, and policy. Overcoming such challenges, high lighted in the previous sections, will require multidisciplinary approaches, perspectives, and collaborations. This review serves to induce communication across relatively disparate disciplines but intentional and structured coordination will be required to further advance the state of knowledge and maximize the environmental benefits of solar energy systems at the utility scale.