I’m not a big fan of grid-scale solar energy. The human load on the planet comes down to four things, in order of damage. 1) Non-renewable energy use; 2) The transformation of the surface of the planet for our own use, from urban development to farming to strip mine fishing; 3) The concentrated organic load of our excretions, and those of our domesticated animals; and 4) The aggregation of certain materials into toxic concentrations. Grid scale solar helps with number one, but makes number two worse.
Last week, however, I read about the MTA planning to expand solar panels to areas I do approve of – rooftops.
These are areas that are already covered by human-created structures, and thus no loss. The goal is for the MTA to make some money by leasing out the roofs of the structures it owns. But that got me thinking.
First the broader issue, which was addressed in this article.
As the adoption of solar power goes mainstream, the challenge now is finding enough space to harness the sun’s energy. For solar power to cut substantially into our reliance on fossil fuels, major solar projects will have to be built on a noticeable portion of the landscape. There will inevitably be environmental impacts. Already, large-scale solar projects have created unexpected and unsettling fault lines within the American environmental movement — conflicts that will have to be resolved with creativity and compromise if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
In one camp are those who see solar power as a noble use of our non-urban land, even if that means encroaching on farms and natural areas. The alternative, they say, is runaway global warming caused by the continued burning of carbon-based fuels — a far worse outcome than the construction of industrial-scale solar projects. This group makes the same argument for the widespread deployment of wind turbines.
Others see sprawling solar projects as blights on the landscape and threats to wildlife. Their concerns about protecting vulnerable species and natural open spaces have deep roots in the American conservation movement, and they cannot be discounted.
This source believes that farmland is the ideal place to put large-scale solar farms.
To supply all of America’s electricity from the sun, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that solar installations would have to occupy about 0.6 percent of the country’s total land area. That’s equivalent to less than 2 percent of U.S. land now in crop production, but it’s still a big stretch of terrain, almost the size of West Virginia. While this is far more solar than a balanced renewable energy economy would require, it is a useful gauge of solar power’s land needs.
But that is a vast underestimate.
If we are to reduce, let alone eliminate, our dependence of fossil fuels, far more of our power would have to be electric. So merely planning for our current level of electricity use is incorrect, especially at a moment when electric motor vehicles are starting to come into widespread use.
Back when I had solar panels installed, I carefully tabulated our total energy use, converting gasoline and natural gas into kilowatt hours based on sources I could find. Yes, all or most of our electricity use is now renewable, but electricity use was only 12.7% of our total energy consumption at the time.
Despite owning a small car and using it primarily on the weekend and for trips out of town, that automobile accounted for 13.1% of our energy use. So if motor vehicles go electric, double that land use estimate.
Hot water and the gas stove was another 13.4% of energy use. Make that electric and you’ve got to triple the land used.
And despite living in a row house, using an electronic thermostat, double paned windows, etc., natural gas heat accounted for fully 60.7% of our energy use. Since we no longer own a car, that share has gone up.
And this is just our residential energy use, not including the energy used to produce and deliver the stuff and services we use, and the energy used at our places of work.
So multiply the estimates in that article by five or eight or more – to 3.0% to 5.0% of total U.S. land and 6.0% or 10.0% of U.S. cropland. Just to provide the energy required by very energy thrifty-middle class households.
Bloomberg News recently published a series of cartograms of how the U.S. uses its land, and it is so proud of the effort it has kept it on its home page for months. So looking at the final map, which portion of U.S. land would you like to see covered by energy-producing equipment?
Aren’t we sucking up enough land for ethanol/biodiesel as it is? And remember, the U.S. is a land-rich country, relative to its population. What about places such as South Asia, China, Europe and Japan? According to the article.
Green energy advocates may have thought their most formidable foes would be defenders of the fossil fuel status quo. They hadn’t counted on so much friendly fire from traditional allies in the conservation community. But projects like the Moapa Paiute installation and the California Valley Solar Ranch show that, done right, solar development can address habitat protection and wildlife concerns.
The truth, however, is that clean energy is not without costs, and decarbonizing our energy supply involves making tough choices. Wide swaths of terrain will be needed if we are to capture the sun’s vast energy potential. Figuring out a responsible way to install renewable energy projects on that land is vastly preferable to the alternative — a world under siege from climate change.
Covering deserts with solar panels? Fine for me, but then I’m not a big fan of deserts. Replacing forests, farms and meadows?
What about railroads?
More specifically, what about the elevated and at-grade portions of New York’s rail transit system, subway and commuter rail? Imagine that in addition to seeking to make money by leasing out space for solar panels on its existing roofs, the MTA instead sought to merely break even on allowing support structures to be placed on, and solar roofs to be installed over, elevated and at grade rail lines?
The MTA wouldn’t make money from leading the space, but it would save money on maintenance, because the sun, rain and snow would not longer be falling down on is right of way and equipment. And avoid weather disruptions, such as those that occur when it snows heavily.
I recall a Regional Planning Association report that proposed, among all the other unaffordable pie in the sky suggestions, putting all the subways underground to make them more reliable. We have since found that with all the other demands by Generation Greed to put less in and take more out for other things, we can’t even afford to paint and replace the signals on the elevated structures we already have.
But imagine that a company could make enough money from solar energy to install a solar roof and its roof supports over the existing structures? The cost to the MTA would be zero, and the effect would be the same – except the passengers would still have a view between the support pillars on the sides of the structure and between the tracks.
The support structures would have to be pretty strong. From above, they’d have to be strong enough to deal with a 30-inch snow load, such as the one that fell on New York City in 1996.
From below, the support for the solar roof would have to be strong enough to prevent it becoming an airborne projectile in a category two-plus hurricane.
I recall having to take several days off from work prior to our solar panels being installed, and having to empty my closet to engineers could open the hatch and look at our roof beams. It seemed stupid at the time — surely those beams could easily support that downwardweight. Then, during Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy, the entire house shook as the solar panels acted like a wing and threatened to fly away with our roof. I didn’t think of that. But there was no damage.
The MTA doesn’t have to do this now. It could wait until the circumstances allowed it to be done at no cost to itself. If and when it became feasible, priority should be given to at-grade and open cut portions of the system. Those are the sectors of track that lock up in the snow, since on elevated structures the snow falls down between the rails.
This is a concept that I came up with thinking about rail freight. Isn’t it silly that companies are developing self-driving trucks to save on the cost of truck drivers, even as the railroad industry – with its own, separate, confined and plotted right of way – remains stuck in the 1970s?
Why can’t we have an automated, electrified national conveyer belt, moving truck trailers and containers individually around the country, on individual flatcars with their own electric motors and/or combinations thereof? Moving on their own with power from a third rail, with the possibility of exiting to transfer facilities located every 250 miles. Where they would be dropped off and picked up by truck drivers who sleep in their own beds ever night. Double track, single stack for rapid placement and removal, not single track, double stack with 24 hours in the yard.
But what would happen to a set of self-driving flatcars with containers on them when they hit a lake-effect blizzard on the old Nickel Plate right of way southwest of Buffalo? Perhaps the electricity generated by solar panels could generate enough electricity to pay to roof that right of way over, and other areas where heavy snow is common, I surmised.
Which brings us to the Sunnyside Yard in Queens. Mayor DeBlasio (or should I say “President” DeBlasio) and Governor Cuomo sometimes seem to be in a competition to see who can shower more public money on the real estate development industry. I believe that Hudson Yards, the development over rail yards in Queens, will eventually provide the City of New York with a net benefit, but for now it and those who live and work there are sucking money out of the rest of us.
That’s for a development with 80-story buildings in Manhattan. How much more in subsidies would be required, and how much worse of would the rest of us have to become in taxes paid and services forgone, for a development over the Sunnyside Yards in Queens?
In February 2017, the city unveiled a feasibility study of the Sunnyside Yard area, which showed that decking was in fact possible, and that there were various scenarios through which a development of the yard could move forward.
This new steering committee will use that as a basis for their master plan; many of the details in that plan still remain intact: Decking is possible on 80-85 percent of site, which totals 180 acres of space. This could see the creation of up to 24,000 homes, 19 schools, and 52 acres of public parks.
But the supports for that decking would constrain the use of the rail yard forever. While the structures needed to support a solar roof are significant, they aren’t so massive that the couldn’t be removed and moved for something such as – East Side Access.
And isn’t ironic that after decades of “progressives using zoning to prevent the reuse of industrial land for other things at a time when industrial demand for that land was zero, now you have DeBlasio seeking to get rid of industrial land at the very time when demand for it is soaring? (These days, aren’t “progressives” actually privileged existing interests who are conservatives and against change? The root word of “progressive” is, or at least was, progress).
One-story warehouses with solar roofs would require more structural support than solar roofs alone, but far less than 24,000 new homes with 75,000 people who are exempted from taxes for the next 45 years (under the Cuomo/DeBlasio 421a) in a place where other people have the highest state and local tax burden in the country.
In summary, instead of another subsidized real estate development – but with vastly greater subsidies – the MTA and Amtrak should be open to anyone who can profitably install solar roofs on their outdoor rights of way. That would be a real win for the rest of us.
Update: A year earlier, there is this.
COMMUTERS MAY not have paid them much attention, but a small array of solar panels next to the railway line at Aldershot, a town 50km (30 miles) south-west of London, could herald a greener future for train travel. The site is an experiment to supply electricity generated from sunlight directly to a railway line. It is the “directly” bit that is novel. In Britain, as in many places, solar power is already fed into the grid, and it is the grid which train operators plug into. So, in a sense, many electric trains already use some solar power. But by connecting the panels to the line itself, trains can be powered more efficiently.
Admittedly, it is not at present a lot of power. At around 37 kilowatts the site could easily top up the battery of a Tesla electric car, but it might not move an electric train very far. That does not matter at this stage, because it is there to test a concept rather than run a railway. And the concept is working, says Stuart Kistruck, director of engineering for the southern region of Network Rail, the government-owned operator of railway infrastructure in Britain.