The Renewable Power Potential of California’s Urban Areas

Developing massive large-scale solar farms on open land comes with the good and the not-so-good. While it provides the grid with large amounts of emission-free renewable energy, it requires building out infrastructure on open spaces that provide habitat for wildlife. These big utility-scale solar plants tend to be located far from load centers, requiring additional build out of transmission and distribution technology.

Solar carports
Photo: David Baxendale

This model means that we’re rebuilding our grid to accommodate solar generation, which won’t be an efficient way to handle integrating solar long-term.

Big utility-scale projects play a part in creating a more sustainable energy portfolio. But several other factors such as land conservation and infrastructure constraints mean it’s only going to be part of the solution—and not the entire solution. Distributed solar generation will also need to be part of the plan to reduce our use of fossil fuels. By building renewable energy closer to load centers and where it will be used, we can minimize the amount of energy that’s lost along the transmission line, impact on wildlife, and the need to build massive amounts of new grid infrastructure.

A recent study from Stanford concluded that there are enough rooftops, parking lots and other developed land in California that can be equipped with solar to power the state three to five times over. In California—unlike in the Northeast, where land and site constraints limit the amount of solar development is possible—we have more than enough space to generate the energy we need.

The Stanford study maps out areas that are ideal for solar photovoltaic (PV) energy or concentrated solar power (CSP), resulting in an energy generation potential of 20,000 terawatt-hours annually if the areas were fully utilized with the respective solar technology. The areas best suited for PV add up to be about the size of Massachusetts and Delaware for CSP development.

What?! We could fit a solar covered Massachusetts into California!

Both land and site dynamics are the most important aspects in determining solar development potential. Identifying what’s possible in California’s urban centers in actual mathematical terms is very exciting—especially for commercial, industrial, and municipal customers that haven’t yet realized the full solar potential of their facilities and land.  Land is precious and limited, and we have immense existing infrastructure that isn’t being fully employed towards our common goal of a clean energy future.  Solar is a free, plentiful resource here in California—let’s not let it go to waste.

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