Solar farms in the wilderness

California is a sunny place and the State has now decreed that by next year 20% of the energy used by the State must come from renewable sources. In the case of all such laws, the devil will be in the detail, but you cannot say that Mr Schwarzenegger is ignoring the imperative of climate change; he hopes for California to provide one third of its energy from renewables by 2020; again the devil will be in the detail.

So far the concentration has been on big expensive projects. The Carrisa Plains are relatively unpopulated areas where land is cheap but the ecosystem diverse and fragile, as it is over the whole of the United States. These plains are the location where three renewable electricity plants are touting for permits and for Mr Obama’s 30% subsidy.

Two of the plants proposed, one at Topaz Solar Plant and the other at California Valley Solar Project (the places and plants have names but so far no work has started on the plants) will use very large arrays of photovoltaics to produce day time electricity. The third plant will sue solar thermal concentrators to heat water for turbines, also thus providing daytime electricity from Carrizo Energy Solar Farm.

The locations make sense for the business plan point of view; the land is cheap and there are existing transmission facilities. From the more environmentally searching point of view and from the energy point of view, I am not so sure about these projects.

First the pure environmental point of view; the projects would cover about 16 square miles of ecologically sensitive land. It would effective prevent that land from being a habitat for its existing flora and fauna. The locations are in places where water is scarce and no doubt the construction and running of the plants will provide a further draw on the existing water supplies.

There is the other environmental issue of exactly how much in carbon dioxide emissions will these plants save? They would we are told, when all completed, provide power to more than 90,000 homes, but such a stark statement hides more than it reveals. The average US home uses so much electricity that the carbon dioxide emissions from US homes amount to about 7.5 tonnes on average a year (assuming a monthly utility bill of $100). People have different living patterns; those who work will not need so much electricity in the day time, and those who do not work will consume fairly steadily over twenty four hours. However in California half of a day’s hours are in darkness, when solar does not work. Storing electricity is almost impossible to do in an environmentally acceptable way.

This means the associated start up and wind down costs in terms of carbon emissions for local fossil fuel power stations, as well as the inevitable power losses in the grid distribution system.

Now I do not want to give the impression that these large renewable energy power plants should not be built. They are as necessary as fossil fuel power plants and in future they will be even more important as a source of power throughout the world. I think the question arises as to where they should be built.

The best locations for these solar power plants are inevitably the most expensive. They should ideally be sited within cities, shortening the distribution system and much reducing their environmental impact. If you travel along the west coast of California you will see plenty of fossil fuel power stations located, and there is no reason by similar location should not be used, or these photovoltaic and thermal power stations should not co exist on the same sites as the fossil fuel power stations that they will eventually replace.

In addition to these plants California can probably get greater savings in emissions by specific mandates, rather than Mr Schwarzenegger’s simple target. The problem with targets is that they become an end in themselves. They create systematic problems because the focus of the target is narrow, and does not, like these proposed power stations, provide a broad enough focus to deal with the complex problem of climate change. The target, when coupled with a subsidy may lead to increased risk taking, something that we have experienced with the banking system and something that we need to avoid with climate change.

It must always be better to start with the smaller projects first, leaving the grandiose projects until later. The smaller projects would bring an immediate carbon savings gain. If you live in California there should be no reason to heat your water or your pool by using fossil fuel; in these cases existing modern solar thermal technology will do the job without putting at risk the environment, except of course there will be some modest environmental changes, but those will be on your roof.

8 Responses

  1. […] DIYers IT Zone added an interesting post on Solar farms in the wildernessHere’s a small excerpt…case of all such laws, the devil will be in the detail, but you cannot say that Mr Schwarzenegger is ignoring the imperative of climate change; […]

  2. […] Te Papa’s Blog placed an observative post today on Solar farms in the wildernessHere’s a quick excerptTwo of the plants proposed, one at Topaz Solar Plant and the other at California Valley Solar Project (the places and plants have names but so… […]

  3. […] WSJ.com: Environmental Capital created an interesting post today on Solar farms in the wildernessHere’s a short outlineCalifornia Valley Solar Project, Carrisa Plains soalr power plants, Carrizo Energy Solar Farm, location of soalr power plants, Topaz Solar… […]

  4. […] Barcelona Reporter placed an interesting blog post on Solar farms in the wildernessHere’s a brief overviewNow I do not want to give the impression that these large renewable energy power plants should not be built. […]

  5. Robert,

    I found a June 2008 paper on the website of Tony Blair about Climate change and CO2:

    Click to access BreakingTheClimateDeadlock.pdf

    This paper make many references to large scale solar and also CCS [carbon capture and storage] being the key to reducing carbon emmisions, it seems interesting ! Maybe we will hear something about these sorts of ‘super solar projects when Obama, Gordon and the rest of the G20 gang meet ? !!!

    Peter Burke

  6. Robert, this video link below “Orchards Of The Sun” is really in agreement with what you are saying in the above article above:

    http://www.livescience.com/common/media/video/player.php?aid=24699

    Plus this links to more solar energy videos !

  7. Robert, could wind turbines make a dent in the overall energy requirements of the UK? would that be a major contribution say of over 10% and would the cost to the environment be greater than if solar thermal were to be invested in?

    What I am thinking is that it’s a really complex problem to answer because of system losses and the fact that its unsure exactly what the input energy will finally be used for. Wind turbines to power 3KW immersion heaters or electric showers does not seem to be sensible but wind turbines just add electricty into the grid and then some power is used for electric water heaters. So is systemics and using methods to localy reduce heating loads suchas solar thermal a better answer than just building more (ugly) wind turbines ?

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