Clear Cut Trees Reveal Solar Power's Environmental Downside
It’s a given that solar power is unreliable as a source of base load power to meet our daily energy requirements. After all, the sun—at best—shines some of the time. Great River Energy’s experimental solar array in the Twin Cities, for example, operated at 13.6 percent of capacity in 2014. The utility recorded overcast skies a full 70 percent of days, observing clear and sunny conditions just 10 percent of the year.
Nor does solar power cut it economically without state and federal subsidies, rebates and tax credits.
Yet another adverse aspect of this supposedly “clean” energy source continues to be under-appreciated: solar power’s harmful environmental impact.
True, the industry’s dirty little secret has begun to get out, even among like-minded groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“The potential environmental impacts associated with solar power — land use and habitat loss, water use, and the use of hazardous materials in manufacturing — can vary greatly depending on the technology,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ website.
Moreover, as people around the country begin living alongside actual solar installations, in many instances they’re fighting back.
“Depending on their location, larger utility-scale solar facilities can raise concerns about land degradation and habitat loss,” the liberal UCS states on a web page headlined “The Environmental Impacts of Solar Power.”
A prime example of such environmental degradation has come to light at the Lake Pulaski solar project in Buffalo Township 35 miles west of the Twin Cities.
The project’s owner, multinational conglomerate Enel Green Power, recently clear cut hundreds of mature hardwood trees to make way for tens of thousands of solar panels later this summer. Angry residents posted dozens of photos of the carnage on the township’s Facebook page, too late to save 11 acres of maple, ash and oak from the chainsaw.
“Since I was a little boy, I was taught that trees give the oxygen back, they hold the soil, they help filtrate the water, they provide homes for wildlife, they slow down the wind and snow,” Buffalo Township Supervisor Don Schmidt said. “Yet they cut them all down to put up solar panels. I haven’t had anybody be able to explain that to me yet how that works.”
Enel Green Power agreed to discuss the locals’ concerns, but expressed no regrets.
“All EGP-NA projects are developed with a comprehensive approach to sustainability in mind, and as a company, we hold ourselves to the highest environmental standards and diligently comply with permitting regulations,” EGP Communications Specialist Krista Barnaby said.
In fact, Minnesotans have little say on many solar projects in their own backyard. State law grants state regulators authority over big solar developments, overriding local zoning laws. A disclaimer posted by Buffalo Township officials typifies local government’s growing frustration.
“The Supervisors had no control over this Solar Field, as the original developers bypassed the township and the county and obtained a permit from the state.”
One thing for sure. Residents will have no problem seeing the forest of solar panels for the trees.
The backlash has led Wright County to pass a moratorium on smaller scale solar farms. Neighboring Carver County has rejected 2 proposed solar facilities opposed by residents. Legislation has been introduced to ban solar developers from removing too many trees in future projects.
Overall, the collateral damage has exposed the reality that solar power isn’t all it’s cracked up to be environmentally.
“These companies come in here and paint such a nice picture. And then you start seeing what they do to the land,” said Tom Kleist, Buffalo Township Clerk and Treasurer. “They’re going to be digging hundreds of holes to put the poles in, which is going to disrupt the soil. They don’t tell you they’re putting roads in all these fields, so they can get their equipment in and out.”