What are the net benefits to clearing a plot of trees, or grass to install solar panels? Isn’t it better to install the panels over parking lots?
Yes, from a sustainability point of view it's better to place solar panels over parking lots because
- You save trees that can continue to absorb CO2 and provide a home for insects and possibly other animals.
- The panels will provide shade to cars parked underneath thus reducing the need for aircon in those cars when they drive off.
- The panels absorb solar radiation and reduce the 'heat island' effect of the parking lot during the day (although during the night the panels will hold heat a bit more).
The main disadvantages are:
- It is much more expensive to set this up because you need a solid construction that will hold the solar panels.
- The construction most likely uses steel which has a large environmental impact for its production.
BTW this Washington Post article also sums up the main pros and cons.
Parking lots can have trees because the tree canopy grows above the cars. Asphalt parking lots can get dangerously hot in hot climates. Trees will keep the parking lot cool in hot weather because of shade and because of water evaporating from the leaves.
Solar panels could shade the parking lot with artificial shade but the structure for the solar panels would be expensive. Also, the parking lot could be an electromagnetic field with solar panels.
While installing panels over parking lots may be more in line with sustainability goals, it is simply not the most practical solution. Those opposed to solar panels, because unfortunately plenty of people are, have less issue with them if they’re away from their homes in some field. Having them in the obvious public with parking lot solar panels could get these people more upset, as they’ll be turned off by the everyday sight.
The main issue, though, is the cost. The future may have more room for these types of systems, but currently, it is just too expensive to become a reality because of how it requires the use of more steel. The prohibitive cost of parking lot solar panels makes large expanses, meaning acres, of land more appealing to companies, as the solar energy business is still about profits.
It is an unfortunate situation that this land may sometimes be forest and the trees must be cut down to clear space for solar panels. There is certainly more than one example of this happening, and it makes sense to want to fight back against it. What’s the point of installing solar panels if they you have to destroy the forest to make it happen?
Well, because it’s honestly still worth it.Solar energy production does a lot more to offset climate change than the trees that some of these utility-scale solar projects may replace. While we should care about our forests, utility-scale solar is one of the best ways we have to increase the use of renewable energy. And we don’t have to worry about it taking away all our trees.
Greenfield development doesn’t even have to involve cutting down trees. Companies will often use land that is already flat and cleared, like vacant farmland and unused fields.
Some energy providers actually plant native grasses in the sight after development is complete. I’m not sure where the idea that grass is removed for the sake of solar energy came from. Solar energy production is pretty much always harmless to grass.