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Solar's Lofty Ambitions Are Consuming Ever-Larger Expanses of Land


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Real Clear Investigations

Wedged in the southern flank of Virginia, Charlotte County is home to some 11,500 people who live amidst rolling hills and family farms, pastures and sawmills, a historic Civil War battlefield, and four townlets tinier than many suburban subdivisions.  

But this pastoral tableau will be swept up in the green revolution when construction begins here on the nation’s largest solar power facility east of the Mississippi River. The planned 800-megawatt Randolph Solar Project in Charlotte County will replace a commercial lumber farm of loblolly pines with 1.6 million photovoltaic panels covering an area equivalent to seven square miles. 


State and federal officials see in solar energy the potential to counteract global warming with an infinite natural resource. With the 2020 passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, the Old Dominion is among a growing number of states committed to “decarbonizing” its power grid by replacing natural-gas and coal-fired power plants with solar panels, wind turbines, and battery storage.  

Federal policy is about to inject a massive funding to incentivize similar transitions nationwide. The New York Times characterized this year’s omnibus Inflation Reduction Act as the “the largest package of subsidies ever granted to the industry” – a $220 billion package of tax breaks, subsidies, and other incentives for the electric utility sector to invest in solar power, battery storage systems, and other carbon-free technologies.  


The momentum behind solar energy could make sunshine the nation’s dominant source of electricity, supplying up to 45% of the nation’s electricity by mid-century, from a meager 2.8% of U.S. electricity generation now, according to a Department of Energy forecast. 

But converting to solar has ancillary costs that will become more apparent as time passes. Solar energy facilities require vast stretches of land, converting farms and fields into geometric rows of indigo panels. The South Atlantic region has led the country in newly installed solar generating capacity for the past three years, according to a study from Virginia Commonwealth University, but little information is available on how these facilities are altering the landscape.  

And the rapid buildout exposes a moral paradox for the climate change movement: Although done in the name of fighting global warming, some amount of deforestation will be the inevitable result of clearing land for ground-mounted solar panels. Environmental groups say they hope to steer solar farms to "disturbed land" (modified adversely, typically by prior human activity) and rooftops, but those options are often expensive and impractical. :snip:

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