Why Putting #Solar Canopies on Parking Lots Is a Smart Green Move — Yale Environment 360 #ActOnClimate

A solar-covered parking lot at the plant of Anhui Quanchai Engine Co., Ltd. in Chuzhou, China. IMAGINECHINA VIA AP IMAGES

From Yale Environment 360 (Richard Coniff):

Solar farms are proliferating on undeveloped land, often harming ecosystems. But placing solar canopies on large parking lots offers a host of advantages — making use of land that is already cleared, producing electricity close to those who need it, and even shading cars.

Fly into Orlando, Florida, and you may notice a 22-acre solar power array in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head in a field just west of Disney World. Nearby, Disney also has a 270-acre solar farm of conventional design on former orchard and forest land. Park your car in any of Disney’s 32,000 parking spaces, on the other hand, and you won’t see a canopy overhead generating solar power (or providing shade) — not even if you snag one of the preferred spaces for which visitors pay up to $50 a day.

This is how it typically goes with solar arrays: We build them on open space rather than in developed areas. That is, they overwhelmingly occupy croplands, arid lands, and grasslands, not rooftops or parking lots, according to a global inventory published last month in Nature. In the United States, for instance, roughly 51 percent of utility-scale solar facilities are in deserts; 33 percent are on croplands; and 10 percent are in grasslands and forests. Just 2.5 percent of U.S. solar power comes from urban areas.

The argument for doing it this way can seem compelling: It is cheaper to build on undeveloped land than on rooftops or in parking lots. And building alternative power sources fast and cheap is critical in the race to replace fossil fuels and avert catastrophic climate change. It’s also easier to manage a few big solar farms in an open landscape than a thousand small ones scattered across urban areas.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it smarter. Undeveloped land is a rapidly dwindling resource, and what’s left is under pressure to deliver a host of other services we require from the natural world — growing food, sheltering wildlife, storing and purifying water, preventing erosion, and sequestering carbon, among others. And that pressure is rapidly intensifying. By 2050, in one plausible scenario from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), supplying solar power for all our electrical needs could require ground-based solar on 0.5 percent of the total land area of the United States. To put that number in perspective, NREL senior research Robert Margolis says it’s “less land than we already dedicate to growing corn ethanol for biofuels.”

It works out, however, to 10.3 million acres. Because it is more efficient to generate power close to customers, some states could end up with as much as five percent of their total land area — and 6.5 percent in tiny Rhode Island — under ground-based solar arrays, according to the NREL study. If we also ask solar power to run the nation’s entire automotive fleet, says Margolis, that adds another 5 million acres. It’s still less than half the 31 million acres of cropland eaten up in 2019 to grow corn for ethanol, a notoriously inefficient climate change remedy.

Despite the green image, putting solar facilities on undeveloped land is often not much better than putting subdivisions there. Developers tend to bulldoze sites, “removing all of the above-ground vegetation,” says Rebecca Hernandez, an ecologist at the University of California at Davis. That’s bad for insects and the birds that feed on them. In the Southwest deserts where most U.S. solar farms now get built, the losses can also include “1,000-year-old creosote shrubs, and 100-year-old yuccas,” or worse. The proposed 530-megawatt Aratina Solar Project around Boron, California, for instance, would destroy almost 4,300 western Joshua trees, a species imperiled, ironically, by development and climate change. (It is currently being considered for state protected status.) In California, endangered desert tortoises end up being translocated, with unknown results, says Hernandez. And the tendency to cluster solar facilities in the buffer zones around protected areas can confuse birds and other wildlife and complicate migratory corridors.

A solar parking facility at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, with an output of 8 megawatts of electricity.

The appeal of parking lots and rooftops, by contrast, is that they are abundant, close to customers, largely untapped for solar power generation, and on land that’s already been stripped of much of its biological value.

A typical Walmart supercenter, for instance, has a five-acre parking lot, and it’s a wasteland, especially if you have to sweat your way across it under an asphalt-bubbling sun. Put a canopy over it, though, and it could support a three-megawatt solar array, according to a recent study co-authored by Joshua Pearce of Western University in Ontario. In addition to providing power to the store, the neighboring community, or the cars sheltered underneath, says Pearce, the canopy would shade customers — and keep them shopping longer, as their car batteries top up. If Walmart did that at all 3,571 of its U.S. super centers, the total capacity would be 11.1 gigawatts of solar power — roughly equivalent to a dozen large coal-fired power plants. Taking account of the part-time nature of solar power, Pearce figures that would be enough to permanently shut down four of those power plants.

And yet solar canopies are barely beginning to show up in this country’s endless acreage of parking lots. The Washington, D.C., Metro transit system, for instance, has just contracted to build its first solar canopies at four of its rail station parking lots, with a projected capacity of 12.8 megawatts. New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is now building its first, a 12.3 megawatt canopy costing $56 million. Evansville (Indiana) Regional Airport, however, already has two, covering 368 parking spaces, at a cost of $6.5 million. According to a spokesperson, the solar canopy earned a $310,000 profit in its first year of operation, based on premium pricing of those spaces and the sale of power at wholesale rates to the local utility.

Rutgers University built one of the largest solar parking facilities in the country at its Piscataway, New Jersey campus, with a 32-acre footprint, an 8-megawatt output, and a business plan that the campus energy conservation manager called “pretty much cash-positive from the get-go.” A new Yale School of the Environment study finds that solar canopies on parking lots could provide a third of Connecticut’s power, help meet the governor’s target of a zero-carbon electric sector by 2040, and incidentally serve environmental justice by reducing the urban heat island effect. So far, however, few such canopies exist in Connecticut, according to Kieren Rudge, the study’s author.

One reason such facilities are still scarce is that building solar on developed land can cost anywhere from two to five times as much as on open space. For a parking lot canopy, says Pearce, “you’re looking at more substantial structural steel with a fairly substantial concrete base.” It’s like putting up a building minus the walls. For a public company fixated on quarterly results, the payback time of 10 or 12 years can also seem discouragingly long. But that’s the wrong way to look at it, says Pearce. “If I can give you a greater-than-four-percent return on a guaranteed infrastructure investment that will last for 25 years minimum,” that’s a smart investment. It’s also possible to avoid the upfront cost entirely, with a third-party business or nonprofit paying for the installation under a power purchase agreement.

One other reason for the persistent scarcity, according to Blocking The Sun, a 2017 report from Environment America, a Denver-based coalition of state environmental groups, is that utility and fossil fuel interests have repeatedly undermined government policies that would encourage rooftop and parking lot solar. That report described anti-solar lobbying by the Edison Electric Institute, representing publicly-owned utilities; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group known for inserting right-wing language into state laws; the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity; and the Consumer Energy Alliance, a fossil fuel-and-utility front group, among others.

Throwing Shade, a 2018 report from the Center for Biological Diversity, gave a failing grade to 10 states for policies that actively discourage rooftop solar. These states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin — represent a third of the nation’s rooftop solar potential, but delivered just 7.5 percent in 2017. They typically make it difficult for homeowners or property owners to install solar and connect it to the grid, or they prohibit a third party from paying for the installation. Most also lack a net-metering policy, or otherwise limit the ability of solar customers to feed the excess energy they produce by day into the grid, to be credited against what they take back at other times. Most also lack renewable-portfolio standards, which would require utilities to generate, or purchase, a portion of their electricity from renewable energy sources.

Floating solar panels in Da Mi, Vietnam. SIPA VIA AP IMAGES

It’s possible to overturn such rules. In 2015, a Nevada power company pushed the public utility commission to approve measures penalizing rooftop solar. A voter backlash soon drove the legislature, in a unanimous vote, to override the commission and restore pro-solar regulations. Voters could also go a step further and push state and local governments to encourage smarter solar power siting, with tax breaks for rooftop and parking solar, and also, says Rebecca Hernandez, for solar installations that incorporate multiple technical and ecological benefits.

That could mean added state incentives to build solar farms on brownfields, closed landfills, or degraded farmland, and not on more fragile or productive ecosystems. According to a 2019 Nature study, U.S. degraded lands now cover an area twice the size of California, with the solar potential to supply more than a third of the nation’s electrical power. It could also mean incentives for new technologies. For instance, “floatovoltaics” — solar panels floating on inland canals, wastewater lagoons, and other water bodies—are cheaper to build and more efficient because of natural cooling. In some circumstances, they also benefit wildlife, attracting herons, grebes, cormorants, and other waterfowl, probably to feed on fish attracted to the shade underneath.

Smarter incentives could also apply to working farms — for instance, in the dry, unprofitable corners of fields with huge, center-pivot irrigation systems, or in fields planted with shade-tolerant crops. Massachusetts already has the first such incentive program, targeting solar farms paired with pollinator plantings, or designed for grazing by sheep, as well as in other dual-purpose categories.

It’s possible zoning restrictions on solar farms could follow, especially in areas already anxious about the loss of farmland to subdivisions. But it’s unlikely. States are more likely to follow the example of California, where “net-zero energy” building codes, together with economic practicalities, now dictate that almost all new commercial and residential buildings incorporate solar power from the start. In that scenario, parking lots, long a drain on retail budgets and a blight on the urban landscape, will instead belatedly begin to play their part in generating power — and shading the world, if not saving it.

Richard Conniff is a National Magazine Award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. His latest book is House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth. He is a frequent contributor to Yale Environment 360.

Fort Collins-area #water districts investigate ‘ongoing acts of sabotage’ — The #FortCollins Coloradoan

South Fort Collins Sanitation District treatment facility.

From The Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Marmaduke):

Fort Collins-Loveland Water District and South Fort Collins Sanitation District said they are working with law enforcement to investigate “ongoing acts of sabotage from unknown parties” that have reportedly caused serious harm to district and employee property.

The alleged acts of sabotage are tampering with critical pump stations, emptying of primary storage tanks and fire hydrants, and malicious vandalism of employee property, the districts said in a news release. The first instance was discovered in September 2019 and may have occurred prior to that time, and the issues have continued since then, according to district officials.

District leaders are asking anyone with information about the incidents to contact local law enforcement or email communications@fclwd.com. The districts want to hear about any suspicious activity at district hydrants, tanks and pump stations.

The quality of water and reclamation services delivered by the districts haven’t been compromised, leaders said, and district infrastructure is safe. The districts are working with legal counsel, outside advisers and law enforcement to investigate the activities, which district officials said are felony criminal offenses…

It’s not clear which law enforcement agencies are involved in the referenced investigation. The districts wouldn’t answer that question. Representatives of Larimer County Sheriff’s Office and Loveland Police Department said their agencies aren’t involved, and Fort Collins Police Service representatives said they assisted with an investigation in 2019 but haven’t been involved recently. The Coloradoan also reached out to the FBI but hadn’t received a response as of Friday afternoon…

District officials said they haven’t been able to share information publicly until now because of the sensitive nature of the investigation. They added they’ve invested in more advanced equipment to prevent situations like this one from happening again. A dedicated FAQ about the investigation is posted at http://fclwd.com/saysomething.

Using “Outstanding Waters” to Protect #Colorado’s Best Streams — American Rivers

Big Dominguez Creek

From American Rivers (Michael Fiebig and Fay Hartman):

Over 10 million residents in the West get their drinking water from rivers originating on public lands, and according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, 80 percent of all wildlife species, including migratory birds, rely on riverside lands at some stage in their lives. At the same time, nearly one-third of freshwater species face extinction worldwide, in part due to pollution. As such, streams with exceptionally high water quality, and the benefits they provide to fish, wildlife, and people, are some of the most important places we can protect across the country.

American Rivers, Big Dominguez Creek, Fay Hartman, Outstanding Waters

Many of Colorado’s headwaters streams contribute vital, high-quality water for people, agriculture, and wildlife downstream. This clean water is not only important to the overall health and resilience of the rivers in the region but by extension the health of the communities, ecosystems, and economies connected to it. As we move into a future of increasingly disruptive climate uncertainty, and as streams with exceptional water quality become disturbingly rare, it is more important than ever to protect such sources of water that provide resiliency for both people and the environment.

The Clean Water Act gives individual states the authority to designate Outstanding National Resource Water protections for waterways with exceptionally high water quality to ensure that their water quality is not degraded. Colorado’s state-level Water Quality Program includes a robust anti-degradation provision, the most rigorous of which is designated as “Outstanding Waters” (OW). For a river stretch to be considered “outstanding” it must meet 12 water quality standards, have outstanding natural resource values such as aquatic life habitat or recreational use, and be threatened by outside impacts requiring additional protections. OW designations also require robust community outreach and support for potential stream reaches. The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission (WQCC) reviews each river basin across the state for new designations on a triennial schedule.

The triennial review for streams within the Animas, Dolores, San Juan, San Miguel, and Gunnison River basins began in 2020. American Rivers has partnered with American Whitewater, Colorado Trout Unlimited, Conservation Colorado, Mountain Studies Institute, High Country Conservation Advocates, The Pew Charitable Trusts, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Trout Unlimited and Western Resource Advocates to examine streams in these basins that are the highest quality and deserving of increased water quality protections by the State. Over the past year and a half, groups have been collecting water quality data for potential OW stream candidates, documenting natural resource values, and meeting with local stakeholders to gather community support.

Our coalition is proposing 17 streams to the Water Quality Control Commission for new OW protections in these basins. These stream reaches provide critical aquatic habitat for native trout species, macroinvertebrates (that is, bugs), birds, and other wildlife; provide significant contributions to downstream resilience and ecosystem services like high-quality drinking and irrigation water and provide exceptional recreational opportunities like fishing, swimming, and paddling. Since 2020, volunteers and staff have been collecting water samples for analysis from all 17 streams, four times per year – even visiting somewhat frozen streams in winter.

Alex Funk, American Rivers, Big Dominguez Creek, Outstanding Waters

Over the last two years, American Rivers and our partners have been presenting the data supporting our list of candidate streams to the WQCC during their annual hearings, and their feedback has been encouraging! In the coming months, we will conduct additional water quality sampling and finish up our outreach to the communities surrounding these streams in preparation for the final hearing for the Gunnison-San Juan region, slated for June 2022.

For more information, or if you’d like to get involved, please contact Mike Fiebig, Southwest River Protection Program Director, or Fay Hartman, Southwest Region Conservation Director.

#Blanca #water system to receive boost through USDA — The Valley Courier

A potato truck unloads onto the machine which transports the potatoes for sorting at the Blanca Potato Factory. Photo credit: Jean Butler (2005)

From the USDA via The Valley Courier:

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Colorado Acting State Director Irene Etsitty announced that USDA is investing over $188 thousand to improve infrastructure in Colorado’s rural areas through the Community Facilities (CF) Direct Loan and Grant Program. The Town of Blanca will receive a $9,000 grant to replace the town’s water system meter reader. The current handheld reader is outdated, the new unit will assist the Town in collecting accurate readings for residents which will contribute toward appropriate billing for the water system. “The CF Program is key to ensuring that rural areas enjoy the same basic quality of life and services enjoyed by those in urban areas. The assistance provided today will help keep rural Colorado’s communities resilient and will assist with public safety, educational resources, and other public services,” said Etsitty.

Including Blanca other Colorado projects announced are:

* Custer County will receive a $48,700 grant to purchase a new vehicle for the County Sheriff’s Department. The all-terrain cruiser will ensure that law enforcement officials will be able to adequately respond to any incident in the county.

* The Town of Kersey will receive a $18,000 grant to purchase office equipment and furniture for the renovated Town Hall which houses the municipal departments and employees, including the law enforcement department.

* The Town of Oak Creek will receive a $28,400 grant to purchase a vehicle for the town’s Public Safety Department. Road conditions and inclement weather have made it challenging for public safety officials to respond and the addition of this all-terrain vehicle will help improve the speed and efficacy of responses.

* Phillips County will receive a $24,200 grant to purchase a patrol car for the Sherriff’s Department. The new 2021 Chevy Tahoe will ensure that law enforcement in this rural community have the reliable equipment they need.

* Season’s Schoolhouse Inc. will receive a $10,000 grant to purchase equipment for the daycare facility in Gunnison.

* Spanish Peaks and Bon Carbo Fire Protection District in Aguilar will receive a $50,000 grant to purchase a new fire apparatus with the capacity to transport large quantities of water to the scene of a fire. The new apparatus equipped truck will effectively cut response time in half and double the capacity of the District to fight fires.

More than 100 types of projects are eligible for Community Facilities funding. Eligible applicants include municipalities, public bodies, nonprofit organizations, and federally recognized Native American tribes. Projects must be in rural areas with a population of 20,000 or less. For more information, visit https://www.rd.usda.gov/programs-services/community-facilities/community-facilities-direct-loan-grant-program.

Investments complement the recently announced funding availability under USDA’s Emergency Rural Health Care Grants, which also is being administered through the Community Facilities program, Through this program, USDA is making up to $500 million available through the American Rescue Plan to help rural health care facilities, tribes and communities expand access to COVID-19 vaccines, health care services and nutrition assistance.

Under the Emergency Rural Health Care Grants, Recovery Grant applications will be accepted on a continual basis until funds are expended. For more information, visit http://www.rd.usda.gov/erhc.

Nationwide, USDA is investing $222 million to build and improve critical community facilities in 44 states, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico

To learn more about these programs, interested parties should contact the specialist servicing their county. Also see theCommunity Facilities Direct Loan Program Guidance Book for Applicants (PDF, 669 KB) for a detailed overview of the application process.

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural, tribal and high-poverty areas. For more information, visit http://www.rd.usda.gov/co.