Small scale solar energy can reduce pressure on our public lands

Solar thermal system in Colorado

Dave Parsons NREL

Last week TWS signed onto comments with our environmental partners in support of reconsidering rules around integrating distributed generation onto the grid. Specifically, we asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to reconsider the rules for small scale distributed generation interconnection procedures applicable specifically to plants under 2 MW.

Solar developers have argued that the existing low threshold for plant size, and the conservative limit on the amount of distributed generation that can help to meet electricity load, have created barriers for distributed generation such as rooftop solar to quickly interconnect to the grid.

Lower impact solutions to our energy needs should be given every advantage—solutions such as incentives to reduce peak load on the grid, energy conservation retrofits, smart grid planning and distributed generation (DG). From a wild lands perspective, less is always more—in other words the fewer new energy facilities and transmission lines that need to be built, the lower the impacts. Building small distributed plants within towns and cities is one of a host of energy solutions that can help take pressure off of our wild places.

Contrary to popular belief, distributed generation is not just happening in California. In fact, states like New Jersey have laws in place to aggressively pursue rooftop solar and the increasing potential for rooftop solar around the country is large. According to the solar industry’s request to the Commission “…solar PV has evolved from a niche technology to a rapidly growing industry that is becoming a significant component of the U.S. electricity system.”

DG solar also meets land conservation goals because it can be placed on existing commercial and housing stock and its peak production tracks closely with when people use energy the most—on hot sunny days. This relieves pressure to build additional capacity in remote places that may only be needed a few hours out of the year. Aside from its contributions to meeting peak demand, distributed solar does not generate greenhouse gas emissions during operation. And better yet, distributed generation can more easily be fit onto idle brownfields sites, otherwise left to await cleanup and reuse. In short, it is a win-win-win (win!) for wild places.

If we look broadly at the set of solutions available, it is easy to make the connection between market rules for wholesale power and protecting treasured landscapes. Reducing impacts on the natural world, while finding climate friendly sources of electricity, will likely be one of the biggest challenges to realizing a clean energy economy that puts a premium on protecting human health and the environment.

As lands advocates, we’ve supported lower impact solutions to our electricity problems and we’ve taken opportunities to support a progressive FERC—one that think about the future. FERC’s efforts to ensure that market rules are fair for distributed generation and energy efficiency will aid investment in these resources. These are some of the best solutions available today. Leveling the playing field for renewable energy, even at the smallest scale, as well as proper planning to ensure that renewable energy development treads lightly on the land are two very important pieces of the pie. But local solutions to reduce demand and generate power where it is actually consumed, these can have outsized impact on taking pressure off our wildest places.