'Growing Impact' podcast explores effect of solar energy's expansion on land use

February 2, 2024

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Penn State News.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The latest episode of "Growing Impact" explores the connection between the expansion of solar energy and land use. To meet net-zero emissions by 2050, it is estimated that the U.S. would need to devote 0.5% of its land to achieve that goal through solar energy. That is nearly 16,000 square miles or about a third of the state of Pennsylvania. 

“That can kind of be seen as a large amount of land or a small amount of land depending on where it is and who's bearing the costs and receiving the benefits of that development,” said Kaitlyn Spangler, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education. “There's this large question of where that land is and how the environment and adjacent communities will be impacted.” 

The research team, which includes Spangler, Stephanie Buechler, associate research professor in Ag Sciences Global, and Lauren McPhillips, assistant professor co-appointed in civil and environmental engineering and agricultural and biological engineering, looks to inform policymaking related to solar energy through this project. 

A central challenge the team is addressing is how to minimize the conflict that can occur when considering placement of solar energy installations.  

“Flat, well-draining lands that are really great for agriculture are one of the most ideal types of land for solar farms,” McPhillips said. “That's where you hit this conflict, so it's important to think about ways to overlap uses with solar and some form of agriculture.” 

The intentional dual use of solar panels on land simultaneously used for agricultural purposes is called agrivoltaics, which can include growing crops or animal grazing. 

The team also is examining how solar may impact the ecosystem. 

“It's important for us to think about managing this land in a way such that the quality and state of the land is as good or better than when the solar farm was first built,” said McPhillips. 

In addition to land and environmental impacts, the team is investigating processes that facilitate a just solar transition. 

“We don't want to create a situation where vulnerable actors become even more vulnerable,” said Buechler. “We need to know that if those panels are put on the land, what will the impacts be on those within the household who used to benefit from the use of the land, and who will benefit from the use of that land under agrivoltaics?” 

"Growing Impact" is a podcast by the Institute of Energy and the Environment (IEE). It features Penn State researchers who have been awarded IEE seed grants and discusses their foundational work as they further their projects. The podcast is available on multiple platforms, including YouTube, Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify.  


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