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Solar Farms Shine a Ray of Hope on Bees and Butterflies (scientificamerican.com)
99 points by Breadmaker 13 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 36 comments

There’s a solar power plant in San Benito County, California where you can see something similar. The surrounding area is a blasted hellscape where marginal ranchers graze struggling cattle on BLM land they lease for $1/acre/year. The power plant owns about ten times more land than they need and the difference, after only a few years, between their land and the surrounding ranches is stark. For one thing their riparian habitats are recovering and host many wild species, where as soon as those streams cross the fence they become trampled muddy ditches. This is all on top of the obvious benefits of having a solar power station.

Ironically, environmental groups sued the project and forced it to be 1/3 the original size.


Driving down I-5, the smells and sights from some of the cattle operations along the highway are truly horrifying.

Harris Ranch just has a bunch of cows standing around in mud (or actually probably their own poop).

Yes it certainly was a low point for the Sierra Club who have proven unable to grasp the problem of climate change. They are stuck in the Boomer mindset that environmentalism means recycling cans and bottles.

In California, Sierra Club has apparently been co-opted by NIMBYs who basically use environmentalism as a cover to stop any new development against entrenched interests.

The good thing (at least wrt to the posted s article) is that the majority of people like to save money, and solar offers a way to save money. So the forces of economics and good policy at the state level will make more solar and storage projects happen.

The Sierra Club is not an enemy of environmentalism. It's not an advocacy organization for renewable energy, either. It is what it is, and if you are for development of undeveloped land, you are going to find yourself opposed to the Sierra Club.

It would seem that you are trying to use environmentalism as cover for other views that you have ("entrenched interests"? Who cares who cuts down a forest, and if they are entrenched or not, if the forest ends up cut down?)

I think you should take a hard look at where your personal interests overlap with the mission of the Sierra Club.

> if you are for development of undeveloped land

In SF at least, Sierra Club priorities are (at least facially) decidedly more “anti-development” than “pro-environment”.

How does one explain their opposition to SB 827 [1] through an environmental lens? If we don’t build more density somewhere then we inevitably get more sprawl.

To add some meldodrama, how many people must die in the streets before we move the lever to help our fellow human? To some, “saving the Earth” can justify any amount of human suffering.

[1] https://www.ethanelkind.com/sierra-club-now-opposes-one-of-t...

Bruce Hamilton from Sierra Club has a silly moment in Cowspiracy.


I’m skeptical about the conspiracy claims about how livestock were THE leading cause of GHG and looked up my own sources.

The EPA doesn’t place livestock as the leading cause of GHG.


Livestock are an important source (just not the most important). Documentaries with an obvious angle also purposely edit their footage to cast their villains in an unflattering light.

There’s also a good blog post by the Union of Concerned Scientists about this very claim.


Your link mentions how it's all about whether or not you count the CO2 from cattle respiration.

They say cattle respiration should not be counted because what CO2 comes from cattle respiration would have come from soil respiration.

But it seems to me that the two operate on vastly different timescales : according to wikipedia, "Carbon stored in soil can remain there for up to thousands of years before being washed into rivers by erosion or released into the atmosphere through soil respiration."

So it would seem to make sense to count cattle respiration as added CO2.

The issue is not the CO2 but the methane that cattle produce during digestion. While its lifetime is shorter than that of CO2, its warming potential is 34 times that of CO2.


They're both an issue. And methane might have a shorter lifetime than CO2, it degrades as CO2…

Only 1 report lists it like that. Looking at China GHG emissions, food production isn't even in top 10.

Although, environmental destruction and pollution, water use, pretty high. So it was funny to see a major face of Sierra Club being totally oblivious to it.

I agree that environmental costs of beef production are quite high.

For me, personally, what also matters is the relative ranking of impacts. I did some research into this and here are the top personal contributors to GHG emissions (presumably for a person living in a developed country).

(All figures in tons CO2 per year)

Have one fewer child: 58.6

Live car free: 2.4

One less transatlantic flight: 1.6

Buy green energy: 1.47

EV to car free: 1.15

Plant-based diet: 0.82


The interesting thing is that based on this analysis, on average our transportation usage far dominates the plant-based diet aspect.

Popular press (with some interesting follow-on thoughts about how most of the emissions are produced by the wealthy). https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/7/14/1596354...

original paper here: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541/...

There's a nice book, Without Hot Air https://www.withouthotair.com/ and yes, a first world individual probably uses a bunch of the GHG "budget" on heating the home, water + transatlantic flights. Even cars are not that bad.

58.6 tons CO2 / year per child? isn't that a bit too much?

I guess they are rolling up the child's entire lifetime of Carbon usage including all flights ever taken etc.

In their defense, development of a solar plant is still development. Roads will need to be cut. Vegetation will need to be cut. Some animals will not react well. Climate change is all well and good, but we do need to set aside some land to just be land. The sierra folk may have seen this as the thing edge of a large wedge, effectively a rezoning of the land for a more industrial use. It is too easy to judge such things after the fact.

Sierra's point would probably be that we should be re re-purposing disused industrial land for solar farms rather than virgin fields.

This particular project did not require new roads. It is served by county road J1, and I-5. It also was not built on undisturbed land. Prior to the solar plant it was severely degraded range land.

> but we do need to set aside some land to just be land.

Not if "just be land" also involves cattle farming.

This is nothing in comparison for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-pit_mining for brown coal/lignite.

Do you have coordinates? I can't find it on satellite imagery.

I remember flying over Harris Ranch at about 5000 feet a few years back. Unpressurized light aircraft. I could smell the cattle from up there.

Harris ranch (or whatever big cow op is on I-5).

(36.3057129, -120.2729291)

The solar project is Panoche Valley, I don’t think any satellite pics are new enough to show progress

There’s a map here: https://www.panochevalleysolar.com/project-overview/

I've heard that one of the challenges of maintaining fields of solar panels is keeping the vegetation around the panels under control. Solutions include using grazing animals such as sheep or even guinea pigs[0]. It sounds like this doesn't solve the management issue, but does claim "a field of wildflowers requires less mowing and pesticides than conventional grass does".

[0] https://digital.nepr.net/news/2016/04/01/the-solution-to-sol...

The issue with grazing animals on the land is that it removes the benefit of allowing it to revert to nature - Flowers and brush depth that foster wildlife are stripped away by the grazing stock.

Just musing:

If you leave a patch of ground alone for an extended period of time, it'll transition through various phases of regrowth and eventually end up back at whatever the wild state of being for that region is. Often the end state is woodlands.

So since that conflicts with being a productive PV estate, at some point maintenance is inevitable or you'll end up losing the panels beneath a canopy. That said, the scale of that kind of regeneration might be a century while the useful lifetime of new PV installs is what... ~20-30 years?

So on that timescale what issues are you likely to hit allowing the land underneath PV installs to grow wild? Access would need to be maintained, panels would need to be lofted to a height that avoids any overgrowth, fire risks (electricity + dry brush etc) would need to be mitigated.

Main question I have though is sunlight coverage - Surely the panels and plant life are going to compete to some extent. What's stopping a PV deployment covering ~100% of the land area, shading it all out just like a forest canopy would?

One big issue with just letting the land go wild is invasive plants and shrubs taking over. Take a look at himalayan blackberries in the Pacific Northwest – they smother everything else out of existence.

A lot of restoration work is really just pausing the ecological succession at some beneficial stage. This is essentially what native Americans did; they 'gardened' the earth to support a diversity of plants and wildlife that was sustainable, and beneficial to people. [1][2]

In terms of incorporating solar panels into a more 'wild' habitat, Agroforestry offers a good model. There are a lot of shade tolerant shrubs, etc, that are grown under a canopy of taller trees. [3]

Silvopasture, which is a subset of agroforestry, uses grazing animals to obtain the best of both worlds – the animals play a part in sustaining a diverse ecosystem that's also beneficial to people. [4]

1: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39020.1491

2: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6411373-whole-earth-disc...

3: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agroforestry

4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvopasture

"benefit of allowing it to revert to nature"

Environmentalism is now best seen as planet scale gardening.

After a light skim, this seems like a good match; the land/area isn't used for much else anyway and since PV installations are usually devoid of humans and engines it wouldn't be a bad idea to roll this out on a larger scale.

Absolutely agreed, I am struggling to think of many downsides. Maybe some wasps or bees start a nest near a panel meaning it's difficult to clean the panel? Hopefully the nest gets left alone & the efficiency lost is tolerated, to let the bees/wasps live.

even if they had to clear the ones near the panels it sound slike a huge bet win

Panel cleaning can be done by robots, no?

I expect in 10-20 years most panel cleaning is done by robots similar to window cleaning robots, with small ramps allowing the robots easy traversal over the whole installation. The technology is directly transferable from vacuum robots and window cleaning robots, with the added benefit of knowing the geometry in advance.

Yes. Here's a video of one in action:


Perfect opportunity to apply Permaculture principles like Guilds, where mutually beneficial plants (and animals) are used to create a system that reduces the need for inputs (labor, chemical, etc). [1]

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture#Guilds

Agreed, but permaculture techniques that work vary by region, even down to the microclimates. If local experts are consulted, it should work well... but if not, there will be some years of trial and error before they get it working well for each installation. Even so, better to start such an effort today and get through those trials, so we're in a better place in 10 years.

Maybe it is a little bit cooler on large fields too: a significant fraction of incoming radiation is drained away as electrival power.

OP: bad news for the bees: this Nature study (https://www.nature.com/articles/srep35070 ) suggests that PV fields are actually heat islands worse than parking lots... But these were not necessarily PV plants with flowers growing around them.

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