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Article | Argonne National Laboratory

New Environmental Science Division report provides comprehensive information about solar energy impacts and mitigation

Argonne’s Environmental Science Division (EVS) recently published a report identifying potential environmental, cultural, and socioeconomic impacts associated with utility-scale solar energy development and potentially applicable mitigation measures.

The report summarizes information from the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS), which Argonne prepared for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Solar Energy Technologies Program. The Solar PEIS, issued in July 2012, represents a major step forward in permitting utility-scale solar projects on public lands by identifying priority areas for solar energy development; establishing requirements to avoid, minimize, or mitigate potential impacts; and establishing incentives for development within designated solar energy zones.

Utility-scale solar energy development includes projects that generate electricity for delivery into the electricity transmission grid. There are several different types of solar energy technologies, including concentrating solar power (CSP) technologies, which include parabolic trough, power tower, and dish engine systems; and photovoltaic technologies. Utility-scale solar facilities typically occupy large tracts of land, on the order of 2,000 to 3,600 acres (about 3 to 5.6 square miles) for a 400-MW facility.

CSP technologies, in particular, can also consume large quantities of water, ranging from about 2,000 to 6,000 acre-feet/yr. (700 to 2,000 million gallons/yr.) for a wet-cooled 400-MW facility. Using dry-cooling technologies or PV technologies, the water use can be decreased to about 200 to 400 acre-feet/yr. (65 to 130 million gallons/yr.).

Potential impacts to water, ecological, visual, and cultural resources may be significant and present the greatest risks to project approval. Appropriate site and technology selection and the incorporation of effective mitigation measures into project designs can avoid or minimize potential impacts, thereby resulting in streamlined project approval processes and less stakeholder opposition. In turn, these outcomes reduce the uncertainty regarding development of specific projects and overall risk of project failure,

EVS’s analyses provided the basis for new policies and programs established by both the BLM and the DOE to guide and facilitate future solar energy development. EVS is also supporting further work by the BLM to implement its new solar energy program, including developing regional mitigation strategies and long-term environmental monitoring programs that will guide solar energy development on public lands.

Additional research is underway evaluating water availability issues, analyzing impacts to visual resources and potential mitigation measures, and assessing human health risk for building solar facilities on contaminated lands.

For additional information about EVS solar research programs, visit the EVS website.

Reference: Patton, T., L. Almer, H. Hartmann, and K.P. Smith, 2013An Overview of Potential Environmental, Cultural, and Socioeconomic Impacts and Mitigation Measures for Utility-Scale Solar Development, ANL/EVS/R-13/5, prepared by Environmental Science Division, Argonne National Laboratory, Argonne, IL, June.