The CT Mirror published the Viewpoint “No net loss!’ Don’t cut down forests to build solar sites” by Elizabeth L. Langhorne and Diane Hoffman on Dec. 1, 2020. These writers strongly support the intention of Connecticut State Colleges & Universities to place a solar farm in Hamden, their home town, for its commitment to expanding renewable energy production. However, they equally forcefully condemn the need to clear-cut 12 acres of woodland to install the solar farm, citing its loss of stored carbon and the destruction of ecological habitat that the forest provides. They argue in favor of preserving the forest, and request the Connecticut Siting Council (CSC) to direct the developer to find an alternative site.
I am a fervent proponent of all measures that promote reducing use of fossil fuels because burning them releases carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas contributing to global warming and climate change. I am writing to suggest that the authors failed to accurately weigh the benefits and costs of the project currently under consideration.
I have carried out an assessment of the climate benefit of producing renewable electricity from the solar farm under consideration, on the one hand, against the climate damage arising from the destruction of the forest, on the other. I gathered numerical values from internet sources to carry out a quantitative evaluation of these two factors. I made reasonable estimates for some of the numbers I had to use, based on the internet sources.
I provide the final results here with my estimate of possible errors for each assessment.
I estimate that loss of the forest and ultimate conversion to carbon dioxide by natural decay processes would release 600 +/- 50% tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the 12 acres of lost woodland. This addition of carbon dioxide occurs only once.
Correspondingly I estimate that the electricity produced from the solar farm, using its capacity of 1.9 megawatts stated in the Petition 1425 linked in the article, would generate enough electricity to keep 3,892 +/- 25% tons of carbon dioxide per year from being released. Importantly the lifetime of such a solar farm would be about 20 years, and that rate of eliminating carbon dioxide emission would continue throughout that period.
Clearly operation of the solar farm provides a climate-related benefit that far outweighs the damage from the loss of the forest, clearly beyond the reasonable error estimates provided. It may be concluded that this solar farm provides a great net benefit to the climate, promoting the state’s renewable energy goals.
In contesting this solar farm before the CSC the authors may wish to propose alternative solutions. First, in view of the “no net loss” policy they cite, they could petition to require the developer to seed an equal area of new forest somewhere in Connecticut. Second, they could petition to require gainful harvesting of the forest timbers for use in construction. This would significantly delay release of carbon dioxide from the felled forest. And third, considering Figure 3, Proposed Conditions Map provided in the article, this writer suspects that the clear-cut swath from lower left to center top in this image arises from an electric power transmission line right-of-way.
If so, much of the land in such rights-of-way is deliberately clear-cut or low brush growth. They already have service roads in place. This right-of-way could provide ample acreage, strung out along its length, to install 1.9 megawatts of solar panels equivalent to the project under consideration.
A solution agreeable to all parties could be reached, while promoting the state’s goal to mitigate global warming.
Henry Auer of New Haven is Publisher of the Global Warming Blog