Solar Farms: The Conservation Question

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At Optimus Solar, we field a lot of questions about the solar industry. One question we hear often is “what is your take on the expansion of solar farms in Florida?” While that’s quite open-ended, it is intellectually interesting and practically applicable to consider the implications of land use, power production, power consumption, and conservation. So, what do we think about solar farms?  

We first like to emphasize that Optimus Solar is committed to the sustainability of our communities, Florida, the US and the world through conservation of lands critical to our well-being, clean air and natural beauty.  In fact, we donate a portion of every solar job to Conservation Florida, a quality organization dedicated to the conservation of Florida lands.

When talking about solar farms, land conservation and land use are naturally at the center of the discussion. Land in Florida is still relatively inexpensive. Utilities are able to purchase large swaths to build massive solar farms. Just last year, Florida Power and Light (FPL) purchased nearly 1300 acres outside of Palm Beach for a new solar farm. FPL currently has 14 solar plants, generating 930 megawatts of electricity. Their aim is to produce 4,000 megawatts over the next decade. That’s going to require a lot of land. 

This is great in terms of adding clean renewable power to the grid while also reducing the need for land reserved for fuel pipelines and nuclear waste storage. However, when one looks at what can be achieved with our current footprint and infrastructure, and the negative impacts large solar farms have on land conservation, the answer to the question becomes more complicated.  If preservation of forested land is one of our goals, then solar farms may not be the best answer. 

Forbes recently released an article showing the power of rooftop solar potential in the US, as well as Florida, specifically. There is enough currently-built, solar-eligible rooftop space to provide 75% of all residential power consumption. This is a powerful statistic. Using what we already have, on the same footprint we already occupy, we can functionally produce ¾ of the power we consume.  

Of course, this requires capital, investment, entrepreneurial spirit and effort, but so does importing things such as natural gas, nuclear raw materials, petroleum, etc.  As vehicles rapidly transition to electric, it will also become necessary to produce more power to fuel these vehicles, with solar being the natural option given its production as close to the source of consumption as possible. Rooftop solar makes the most sense when looking at the big picture. If our goal is to preserve the ecological benefits of renewable energy sources, rooftop solar beats out solar farms, plain and simple. 

Solar Power and Electric Vehicles: A Virtuous Cycle for Owners and Communities

 
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Virtuous Cycle: A beneficial cycle of events, each having a positive effect on the next.

Mutually beneficial. Win-win situation. Common phrases we hear time and again which can be applied to many situations.  However, they stop short when we are discussing a truly Virtuous Cycle of occurrences as defined by a complex, self-reinforcing loop of events that yields positive results or feedback. Virtuous Cycles are present in a number of industries and in a variety of forms: rotational grazing in farming, quality urban design, technological innovation and the water cycle. 

A brand new Virtuous Cycle is fast emerging: the adoption of rooftop solar energy systems and Electric Vehicles.  This one uniquely benefits individual owners and consumers in addition to large investors, governments and communities. Picture a common scenario: a person buys a car, drives it for 10 years, and at the same time, buys a house, and lives in it for 20 years.  For each of these years, this individual must buy gasoline, spending an average of $1,600* per year. This fuel must be piped or shipped to them from out of state or out of country, sending more than $1,500 per year out of their community.  At the same time, this individual must buy power from their utility to the average tune of $1,560* per year in Florida. Assuming it is powered mainly by natural gas – the predominant Florida power source – they send another +/- $1,000 per year out of their community to import the resource (Florida produces zero natural gas). 

Now, picture the same scenario where the car is an electric vehicle and the home is powered by solar panels, which provide electricity for the house and fuel for the car.  Between the savings on electricity and gasoline, and factoring in the additional electricity cost to power the vehicle, the net household benefit of a solar-EV home is $2,560* per year. 

This virtuous cycle of hyper-local clean power production and consumption reaches beyond the individual household. The solar panels were manufactured in Florida, and installed by a Florida-based company.  Not only are the initial jobs retained near the community, an additional $2,500+ per year over the next two decades remains local.  The multiplier effect of keeping this money available to spend on local businesses, shops, restaurants, schools, charities, etc. is far more powerful than just $2,500.  It creates a Virtuous Cycle of economic growth within the surrounding community, where instead of importing single-use energy sources ad infinitum, investment is made locally, costs are saved, air is cleaner (through a reduction in tailpipe emissions thanks to the EV) and communities are more prosperous. 

The really cool thing is that this Virtuous Cycle is already a reality. Optimus Solar can provide a number of real-life, current examples where this system is in place, and operating for the benefit of residents and communities.  Electric Vehicles are nearly on-par with gas-powered vehicles in terms of costs, especially when fuel-savings is accounted for.  Solar energy systems provide a return to a homeowner that has a better annual percentage than the S&P 500.  This is a real investment with real, tangible, attractive returns. 

This Virtuous Cycle is scalable in ways most others are not. It saves households money while simultaneously contributing to an overall improvement in quality of life throughout a community. Local governments and businesses would do well to take note of this fact. We can’t find many more effective ways to measurably improve quality of life than through this Virtuous Cycle, which conserves land, cleans the air, saves household expenses, improves home values and invests locally.  By investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and large-scale solar energy systems, municipalities and businesses can create Virtuous Cycles for themselves and the people they serve for decades to come.

Homeowners and businesses invested in their communities and interested in participating in a truly Virtuous Cycle of sustainable growth can reach out to us for discussion and further information.

 
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 *figures are based on national averages within the US

The Power of Investing in Your Community Through Solar

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Imagine walking into your backyard and picking out any food you’d like to eat, for pennies on the dollar of what it costs at the grocery store. Now imagine doing that for all of the items your household consumes.  This powerful concept of local production local consumption is exactly what happens when you install a solar system on your home or business.

But why is this a good thing? Intuitively, it makes sense that producing something in close proximity to where it is consumed, all other things being equal, is a net positive.  Beyond intuition, there are strong economic realities that prove this concept is actually a win for everyone. The benefits of producing electricity locally (and hyper-locally for you foodies out there) are far-reaching and compounding.  There is an infrastructure boom happening in Florida to accommodate the growing population, economic expansion and transportation needs.  Unfortunately, infrastructure development requires an immense amount of land, this includes land required for shipping and pipelines for raw material transportation. Florida loses “up 20 acres of natural and agricultural land per hour” to development and infrastructure expansion, according to the most recent Florida Wildlife Corridor Director’s Report. 

Energy is produced via many methods: coal, gas, nuclear, etc.  In the cases of consumable materials like coal and gas, these materials must be transported by rail, ship, pipeline, or roadway to a processing facility (i.e. power plant) and then redistributed to the end users in the form of electricity. This system of delivery requires massive amounts of single-use infrastructure, which is quickly consumed then discarded, whilst taking up huge swaths of land with environmental risks to surrounding communities. 

Local energy production through renewable means like solar reduces the need for single-use infrastructure and preserves the land and resources that would otherwise go toward those efforts. 

But how realistic a solution is solar? More than most people think. According to a 2016 federal study, Florida has enough rooftop space alone to accommodate over 47% of our power needs.  Installing a solar system allows for 30+ years of local power production, an investment which compounds its positive impact the longer it remains in service.  Solar systems can be produced locally (with high quality panels made right here in Florida) installed with local labor, and serve an entire household’s or businesses’ need for decades.  When this happens, infrastructure needs are reduced, land is freed up over time for any number of uses, resulting in a stable energy grid and safer, more prosperous local communities.    

Solar is not perfect, but it is one of the most directly impactful ways to invest in your household, your community and the future of Florida.  Rather than using our valuable limited land resources to import consumable materials, we can invest in ourselves and our communities by producing what we use locally, and preserving the beauty of the Sunshine State for future generations.