February 1, 2022

Why building solar in urban regions creates a more powerful impact

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When you think of non-residential solar, an image of a gleaming field packed with row after row of solar arrays might come to mind. While these utility facilities are cheaper and faster to build than residential rooftop and commercial scale solar facilities, they also create invisible impacts.

Utility scale solar is often built on arable land that might otherwise be suited for agricultural use or other purposes – land that could even be reforested. Exciting efforts to mix utility scale solar facilities with other uses abound – but still, it is likely that the land intensity of these developments will create economic pressures to clear more forests and natural habitats.

Line loss is a second invisible disadvantage to utility scale solar. As electricity travels along power lines, some is lost in the commute. According to the World Bank, more than 6% of all electricity generated in America is wasted in this way – but the total can be far higher depending on the distance the power needs to travel.

Unlike virtually any other type of power generation, solar panels do not create noise, visual blight, or pollution and can be easily deployed in highly populated and industrial areas.

Solar facilities built on urban infill – on top of parking lots, warehouses, factories, and big-box markets – sidestep these two sources of negative impact. They do not consume arable or undeveloped land and they are located close to the power consumer, reducing line loss and eliminating the need to construct transmission lines and other industrial transmission infrastructure.

Importantly, urban infill projects have great economics because they cut out the electric utility. Typically, a solar developer sells power to its customer above the basement rate utilities pay (sometimes 4-6 cents per kilowatt hour), but below rate utilities charge (9-12 cents).

Both the developer and the customer are better off for cutting out the middleman. This often more than compensates developers for the logistical costs of more complicated urban installations – those land intensive mega solar projects usually have no choice but to accept the utility rate!

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