Satellite view of Solúcar Platform, near Sevilla in Andalucía, Spain

Drawing a Line in the Sand: In Search of Sensible Utility-Scale Solar Policy

Hello!  Welcome to my new blog, “Miracle or Mirage? Tracking utility-scale solar around the globe.”  This post is an introduction to my work.  Please keep an eye on this space, as I’ll be updating frequently over the next few months with notes from the field.

Large-scale solar energy facilities have been amongst the most visible incarnations of proposed solutions to the problem of global climate change.  Beginning in the middle part of the 2000’s, a veritable gold rush of solar development began, as energy companies sought to cash in on lavish state subsidies while benefiting from legislation which mandated renewable energy production.  As a result, landscapes in remote areas have been transformed, turning formerly pastoral areas or those largely unused by humans into industrialized energy production zones.

Ivanpah SEGS as seen from the air

Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System, Mojave Desert, CA.
Photo: © Jamey Stillings, New York Times Magazine

For most people who have found this blog, this is an old story.  However many Americans are unaware that the current utility-scale solar boom in the desert Southwest is not unique: Spain, for example, has a higher level of deployment both on per-capita and absolute bases.  And indeed, they have experienced significant boom-and-bust cycles, as governmental market supports dissolved in the face of economic uncertainty.  Utility-scale solar has also been deployed in Israel, Germany, South Africa, Morocco, India, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are some common threads:

  • In almost all cases, there have been significant government subsidies, legislative mandates, and market supports to promote utility-scale solar.  Frequently these will also have deadlines for commencing production, meaning there is a rush for development.
  • As a result of this rush to meet incentive deadlines, environmental review processes have often been expedited and/or forgone altogether.
  • By the very nature of these facilities, their sheer size and internal intensity of development, land use patterns have changed.  In some places, notably America and Morocco, this has meant development on previously undisturbed, largely “unused” areas.  In other places, notably Spain and South Africa, this has meant displacement of agriculture.

None of this is to cast an absolute value judgement on utility-scale solar projects.  There are instances of “good” utility-scale solar projects, with adequate environmental review processes, appropriate siting, and thoroughly mitigated (or negligible) environmental impacts; just as there are instances of “bad” projects, with hurried and cursory environmental reviews, poor siting, and severe and unmitigatable environmental impacts.

Satellite view of Solúcar Platform, near Sevilla in Andalucía, Spain

Screen capture from Google Earth of Platforma Solúcar, a complex of solar thermal projects near Sevilla, Andalucía, Spain

For my research summer, I have been awarded a Haas Scholars Research Fellowship from the University of California, Berkeley, to investigate policy-making processes and implementation of utility-scale solar projects in the United States, Spain, and Morocco.  My goal is to conduct a comparative analysis of Spanish and U.S. policy, finding what similarities exist, and to extract some “lessons learned” from the Spanish experience, as their deployment of utility-scale solar has been several years ahead that in the United States.  To read my abstract, you can click here [PDF].

In this space, I’ll be regularly posting portions of my field notes.  This could be photos or descriptions from site visits to facilities in Spain, Morocco, and California; snippets from interviews with policy-makers or community members; particularly interesting tidbits from Environmental Impact Statements or solar-enabling legislation; or really anything else that comes down the pike as my investigations unfold.

With my work this summer, I hope to draw a line in the sand.  Utility-scale solar, if deployed in the correct way, could be a key facet of humanity’s response to the negative climate impacts of our energy consumption.  However, as it currently stands, it appears in many ways to be a utility-scale boondoggle: sucking down government subsidies and fundamentally altering local environments, while ultimately showing negligible benefits to overall energy production patterns.  Sensible policy reforms could promote sensible utility-scale solar deployment.

And so, we’re off!  I’m writing this post from a small apartment where I’m currently staying in Sevilla, in the south of Spain.  I’ll spend this week trying to track down EIS’s and talking to people in the towns near the Solúcar Platform (depicted above).  Please feel free to contact me either through this blog, or via email (donnellyshores AT berkeley DOT edu)- I’d love to hear from others who share my interest and passion in this topic.  Until then… Saludos!