Doing the Right Thing for Wind and Solar Power

Part of NRDC’s Year-End Series Reviewing 2021 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

When it comes to renewable energy, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Clean power just keeps winning and winning in the marketplace. According to the Energy Information Administration, wind and solar power made up 62% of new electric generating capacity to come online in 2019 and 76% in 2020. Through September of 2021, these two technologies made up 74%.

Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL 54321

The reason is crystal clear: Across most of the country, wind and solar are simply less expensive than dirty fossil fuels. And costs for wind, solar and battery technologies continue to fall.

The second offshore wind farm started operations in 2021. It’s only 12 megawatts now, but the project, off the coast of Virginia, is on track to eventually be the world’s largest offshore wind farm. And the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management approved the first utility scale offshore wind project, the Vineyard Wind 1 project, which will be 800 MW.

These are incredible achievements, but the big story of 2021 is around solar. There are more utility scale solar projects and they’re getting bigger. The same EIA data shows that in 2015, 3,462MW of utility scale solar projects came online, and largest project was 108MW. In 2020, 10,436MW of utility scale solar projects came online and the largest project was 300MW. Based on data through September, it looks like more than 10,500MW will come online in 2021 and there’s already a new 420MW solar plant operating.

As humans we’re wired to be nervous about change. So, it’s understandable that people have questions about wind and solar projects when they’re proposed in their backyards (or in the case of offshore wind, favorite ocean). And as projects grow in number and size as they are with solar, it makes sense for more questions to arise. Depending on the type of solar technology, a 420MW solar farm could require as much as 4,200 acres of land, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association. That’s about five times the size of Central Park.

We now have enough solar energy in the U.S. to power nearly 22 million homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The Department of Energy’s Solar Futures Study looked at scenarios to decarbonize the electric grid and found that in just the next 10 years, solar would have to go from deploying about 15GW per year, which is about what we’ll see here in the U.S. next year, to 72 GW per year.

And that’s only looking at decarbonizing the electric sector. When DOE looked at decarbonizing the whole economy, it saw the need for almost twice as much solar, reaching 3,000 GW cumulative by 2050.

But the good news is that the study found that the disturbed lands (e.g. developed land good for rooftop solar, invasive species-impacted lands, and land denuded or contaminated by prior use) that are suitable for solar are still about eight times what is needed even for decarbonizing the whole economy. In other words, we can build the solar power we need without endangering pristine lands or putting wildlife or fauna at risk.

Princeton University also did an important study and found similar results. In the study, solar farms in 2050 need an area of land somewhere between the size of Connecticut and Virginia. But even with high renewables deployment and conservative assumptions about site suitability, only 6% of sites suitable for solar are used.

In other words, we have enough land that is technically suitable for solar that, if we’re smart, we should be able to integrate solar while minimizing the impacts on wildlife and our communities. It’s not going to happen on its own, but we can guide those changes to be sure this development is done right.

And the fact is that change is coming one way or another. Recall United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ powerful statement this summer on the latest IPCC report—"Today’s report is a code red for humanity.” If we don’t deploy lots of solar and wind quickly, we’ll have ever more fires and droughts and tornados and hurricanes. Wildlife will die, and we and our communities will suffer.

That’s why NRDC is fighting to extend the federal tax credits for renewables in the Build Back Better bill. We’ve also helped win a slew of state level commitments to reduce climate pollution and hit clean energy targets. From Illinois to New Jersey and New York to Colorado, we help secure commitments to deploy offshore wind and lots of solar.

We’re also fighting to make sure all of this renewable energy is developed responsibly. We’re part of the American Wind Wildlife Institute, which will soon be changing its name to the Renewable Energy Wildlife Institute because it will be working on solar, too. For offshore wind, we helped launch the Regional Wildlife Science Entity. Both AWWI and RWSE are dedicated to driving the best science around how to avoid and minimize the wildlife impacts of renewables development.

Right now, we need lots of wind and solar to protect our communities and wildlife and all of their spiritual, moral and economic value from climate change, and we have to protect those very same values while we deploy those renewables. We need to do this right, because this can be a negative spiral where poor siting leads to growing opposition which in turn undermines wind and solar development, contributing to more severe climate change and biodiversity loss. Or this can be a beneficial spiral where we get the siting right and that helps grow public support and drives better policies, which leads to more renewables, a stabilizing climate, and protecting and restoring biodiversity.

We are making unprecedented progress with renewable energy, but we will need to do much, much more. Here's to keeping up the fight for a better future in 2022!

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Senior Renewable Energy Advocate, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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