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Study: California Solar Farms Far From Demand, Close To Protected Lands

Photo credit: NRG

An aerial photo of the Ivanpah solar power plant in the Mojave Desert.

California is relying heavily on solar power to reach environmentally friendly renewable energy goals. But a new study claims big solar farms can cause environmental problems of their own.

A new law requires California to get half of its energy from environmentally friendly renewable sources by 2030, and the state is relying heavily on solar power to get there. But a study released Monday claims big solar farms throughout the state are causing environmental problems of their own.

Less than 15 percent of the state's major solar projects are located in developed areas, near the point of demand. Many are far from existing transmission lines but within miles of federally protected lands.

Those findings come from the study led by UC Berkeley researcher Rebecca Hernandez.

"We're seeing that a very small fraction of utility-scale solar energy power plants are being sited within the built environment, which is where the energy is actually going to be used," Hernandez said.

She said carving out natural scrubland and shrubland for solar developments can release sequestered carbon and fracture habitats. She also said connecting far-flung power plants to urban cores can lead to power losses and decreased energy efficiency.

San Diego is increasingly receiving solar power from areas in the Imperial Valley that the researchers do not consider environmentally compatible.

"A compatible solar energy power plant would be sited in places like a commercial warehouse rooftop, over parking lots or residential houses," Hernandez said.

In a previous study, Hernandez and her colleagues found that solar energy could meet California's energy demands three to five times over. But she said decisions about where to place solar panels can harm the environment.

"We have a lot of room for improvement," Hernandez said.

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