With continuing advances in technology and declining costs, large-scale solar projects are popping up all over the Commonwealth. Hundreds more seem possible in the coming years.
Many of these solar farms are being developed to offset the carbon footprint of companies like Amazon, who earlier this year announced a 618-acre project proposed on forestland in McKean County and another of 150 acres on farmland in Potter County.
Most solar farm projects in Pennsylvania have been proposed for farms and forestland. These locations are not only short-sighted and counter-intuitive to tackling climate change, they have the potential to lead to a cascade of other negative ecological impacts.
Trees are one of nature’s greatest inventions. According to Penn State Extension, trees are “…without a doubt the best carbon capture technology in the world.” They also protect and cleanse rivers and streams. They do this by slowing down, spreading out, and soaking up much of precipitation that could otherwise carry vast amounts of polluted runoff to the nearest waterbody. Along the way, pollutants are filtered out. Incredibly, streamside forests have been shown to dramatically increase a stream’s ability to cleanse itself of many types of pollution.
Although farmland doesn’t function like a forest, a well-managed farm has its own ecological benefits. For example, healthy farm soils are key to productive, nutritious crops. Keeping soils and nutrients on the land, instead of in the water, also help infiltrate large amounts of precipitation.
Clear cutting forests and compacting and covering healthy soils for large-scale solar farms threaten to replace the vast array of benefits, with polluted runoff degrading streams, increased nuisance flooding, loss of critical wildlife habitat, and even the release of soil carbon back into the atmosphere.
In the spring of 2020, CBF released a report to help guide decision-makers on where solar projects should be located, called Principles and Practices for Realizing the Necessity and Promise of Solar Power.
In our state, better placement of solar projects starts with local municipal governments having up-to-date local comprehensive plans and ordinances that direct solar farms away from forests and farmland, streams, and wetlands. Ideal alternative locations include under-performing malls and their parking lots, abandoned mine lands, and other industrial locations.
Additionally, local governments need to include design standards that require native pollinator species be planted—which also reduces polluted stormwater runoff—instead of non-native species like turfgrass or semi-hard surface like gravel that have little ecological value.
Taxpayers should advocate that companies, as well as state and federal governments, should not be proposing and subsidizing projects in less-than-ideal areas.
Regardless of whether you believe humans are the cause of climate change, the myriad of impacts from it are here and projected to get worse in the coming decades. With advances in technologies, generating energy from sources like solar is increasingly being seen as a viable, less carbon-releasing alterative to fossil fuels.
The decisions we allow our elected officials make on land-use issues like solar projects today will have implications for Pennsylvania’s health, well-being, and quality of life for generations to come.
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