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Stop clearing thousands of acres to build solar panels: Harvard study

Solar panels have contributed to deforestation, report finds

While “more solar energy” is needed in Massachusetts, deforestation is not the way to go, according to a study from Harvard University.

“Since 2010, over 5,000 acres of natural and working lands have been destroyed for solar development in Massachusetts, resulting in the emission of over half a million metric tons of CO₂— more than the annual emissions of 100,000 passenger cars,” Mass Audobon stated in a summary of its study with Harvard Forest.

“Under current siting practices, thousands of acres of forests, farms, and other carbon-rich landscapes are being converted to host large-scale solar,” the report stated.

The removal of trees undercuts the state’s requirement to reduce emissions by 2050. This is because trees are an effective carbon removal tool. “By 2030, climate-polluting emissions in Massachusetts must be reduced by 50 percent relative to 1990 levels, and by 75 percent by 2040, on the way to net-zero emissions by 2050,” the study stated.

“Because it is not feasible to eliminate fossil fuel use across the entire economy by 2050, reaching our net-zero goal will also require removing carbon from the atmosphere, to counteract our remaining [greenhouse gas] emissions,” the study stated.

Harvard Forest’s research director Jonathan Thompson told The College Fix via email that energy development can protect forests while using solar.

“Massachusetts can meet its goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 while simultaneously protecting crucial forests and farmlands,” Thompson said on Nov. 1.  “We identify enough developed area to site 25GW in ways that are ecologically and economically attractive.”

“I think of it as a good news story—we do not need to choose between forests and solar, we can have both,” he told The Fix. “And I think we can meet the Net-Zero goal if we focus simultaneously on developing green energy and protecting forests.”

MORE: UVA explores options to be fossil fuel free by 2050

The report included suggestions such as placing solar panels on rooftops, parking lots, and developed land, a politically popular idea.

“Over 85 percent of surveyed residents in Massachusetts believe that solar should be built on rooftops, parking lots, landfills, and other developed areas, rather than on cleared forests and on top of productive farmland,” the study stated.

“Prioritizing solar with the lowest impacts to nature” and “investing in approaches that will reduce costs of rooftop and canopy solar projects,” were also part of the policy proposals, according to a summary from The Harvard Gazette, a publication of the school’s media team.

The study also noted that subsidies available to produce solar power from the Inflation Reduction Act, a massive spending bill signed by President Joe Biden in 2022.

However, one think tank shared its concerns with The Fix about the reliability and benefits of solar energy and criticized the subsidization of it.

“For decades, solar power has been highly subsidized and its use even mandated in many states, yet none of that can overcome its inherent weaknesses,” Paige Lambermont, a research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told The Fix via a media statement.

“Solar power works when the sun is shining, and then quickly stops producing as soon as the sun goes down. As a result, it is unreliable and only provides electricity on an intermittent basis,” she said. “Because of this, it poses issues for grid operators who need to quickly increase the production of other facilities to compensate for the solar facility’s sudden drop in production.”

“Policymakers should get rid of government meddling, such as the subsidies in [the Inflation Reduction Act],” Lambermont said.

“Reliable power is a policy choice. So is unreliable power.”

MORE: UW historian ‘concerned’ about climate change debate

IMAGE: KelaVI/Shutterstock

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Elaine Gunthorpe is a student at Christendom College where she is studying political science and economics. Elaine is involved with the Christendom College Republicans, Network of Enlightened Women, and Shield of Roses. She also writes as a Campus Correspondent with Campus Reform.