Study identifies 20 overlooked benefits of distributed solar energy


9 July 2019 16:05
Solar panels in a field

A study released today provides the most complete list yet of the advantages of solar energy — from carbon sequestration to improvements for pollinator habitat — and offers an important new framework for analysing solar projects to better understand the full suite of benefits.

The peer-reviewed study in Nature Sustainability was conducted by researchers from the Lancaster Environment Centre, from the Center for Biological Diversity in the United States, the University of California, Davis,and 11 other organisations.

The study, which is the first of its kind, suggests a framework for understanding more completely, and ultimately quantifying, the benefits of solar energy, identifying 20 frequently overlooked advantages. For example, solar panels paired with native plant restoration can result in both added habitat and increased panel efficiency.

Dr Alona Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University, said: “As governments increasingly commit to renewable energy, they should evaluate and appropriately incentivise the synergies outlined in this study. This would maximize solar energy generation potential while protecting, and potentially enhancing, our planet’s climate, air quality, water, land, and wildlife.”

“Solar energy has way more benefits than most people imagine,” said Greer Ryan, a renewable energy and research specialist at the Center and co-author of the paper. “We’re hoping utilities, regulators and legislators will now have a better sense of the importance of solar energy, which will lead to the expansion of rooftop solar, more community solar development and lower prices for everyone.”

“The first step in creating a wild-energy future is understanding the true value of solar,” said Dr. Rebecca R. Hernandez, assistant professor at UC Davis’ John Muir Institute of the Environment and the paper’s lead author. “By valuing all the benefits of renewable energy, we can start to build an energy system that’s beneficial for people, wildlife and wild places.”

Solar energy is the fastest-growing source of power worldwide. In 2019 solar is expected to provide more than 30 percent of all new UnitedStates electricity capacity. According to the International Energy Agency, solar energy could become the largest electricity source by 2050. Solar has many advantages beyond providing power, particularly when built to maximise social, technological and environmental benefits.

In the report, the authors:

  1. Suggest a model for engineering solar energy systems that maximises both technological and ecological benefits.
  2. Create a framework for characterising 20 benefits of installations on different spaces, including rooftop solar; solar on contaminated land; solar over functional bodies of water like reservoirs, water treatment areas and irrigation canals; and solar co-located with agriculture and grazing.
  3. Make the case for understanding that as renewable energy development is ramped up to address the climate crisis, it shouldn’t create unnecessary negative impacts, especially when technology and resources are available to maximise positive effects.
  4. Suggest how this framework might be useful in policy and regulatory decision-making in order to ensure a sustainable energy transition.


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