A recent article in Richmond Bizsense outlined a potentially huge solar energy array for a data center near Chester, VA. That’s good news, right? Well, it's not so simple. Let’s dig into the good, the bad, and some rather interesting thoughts on this topic. How do solar sites impact local areas?
First of all, renewable energy demands are on the rise nationwide. However, According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Virginia ranks 37th in the nation for solar capacity or the amount of energy that could be generated from existing solar installations. Our neighbors, Maryland and North Carolina, are ranked 11 and 19 respectively. As we continue to grow our region’s renewable energy infrastructure, solar power often enters the picture. Solar can take up big areas - the array near Chester would be 1500 acres! To put it in perspective, this is a little over 1,000 football fields' worth of space.
Frequently cited concerns about these large-scale projects include the need to clear a natural landscape which provides ecosystem services like cooling the region, absorbing rainwater, absorbing CO2 while cranking out oxygen, wildlife habitat, and all the other good stuff forests provide. Using unusable land or existing rooftop areas to build solar infrastructure could be a major energy benefit while preserving natural ecosystems. Scientists have recently shown that solar sites can raise local air temperatures due to their dark reflective surfaces amplifying heat for surrounding areas. Lastly, there are also the environmental costs involved with the production, transportation, and installation of these sites to consider as well.
With that said, solar energy is still a cleaner energy source than others in the long run. To power 2 desktop computers for a full workday require about 1-kilowatt hour. The heat-trapping gas output from using coal to generate this power would be 2 lbs, whereas using solar it is drastically lower at 0.2 lbs of co2 per kW hour. Like most things, solar infrastructure to comes with the good and bad. In order to keep global temperatures from warming beyond 1.5° or 2°C, scientists agree a major move away from fossil fuels is needed. But making sure that these massive power sites are installed properly and not harming local ecosystems is another factor to consider.
Currently, these plans for the Matoaca Mega Site near Chester are submitted and are now under review by the county and community. Stay tuned as more develops to see if this solar site will or will not have a bright future.