UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The production of solar energy is putting new demands on already strained regional water supplies and causing energy producers and lawmakers to consider how to balance the demand for renewable energy with water protection measures, according to a talk by Penn State Law senior lecturer Lara B. Fowler and alumnus Alex Wiker. The two spoke on June 28 at the Solar 2015 Conference, hosted by the American Solar Energy Society and held on Penn State’s University Park campus.
The American Southwest is home to about 92 percent of U.S. concentrated solar power plants that are already built, under construction, or in the permitting stages, some of which utilize a “wet cooling” technology that requires significant amounts of water to efficiently produce electricity. The growth of solar energy production in this region, an area that is already stricken with drought conditions and decreasing surface water and groundwater levels, is putting an even greater demand on the region’s water supplies.
This conflict between new demands on water sources and waning resources is causing policymakers and regulators to require less water intensive technologies in some places to better protect the region’s water supply, Fowler said.
“Water is a critical issue, and needs to be taken into consideration in developing a potential solar project,” noted Fowler and Wiker. “Supply is one issue, and stormwater is another”
Water consumption isn’t the only policy area where solar and water intersect. Depending on how they are constructed, solar power plants can prevent precipitation from being absorbed by the ground, leading to stormwater runoff that can cause flooding, degradation of the water supply, soil erosion, and harm to the ecosystem. While solar power arrays can be constructed to minimize runoff, local and state regulations vary widely in their requirements in addressing stormwater issues, according to Wiker.
“Project developers, engineers, environmental scientists, policymakers, and community members must work together to ensure solar projects are truly sustainable at the energy/water nexus,” Wiker said.
The Solar 2015 Conference, “Expanding Horizons: Shaping the New Energy Economy,” brings together energy and law scholars, professionals, and solar enthusiasts for three days of presentations and workshops on solar energy. Held July 28 through 30 at the Penn State Conference Center Hotel, the event features more than 100 speakers discussing the latest trends in research in solar energy. The annual conference is organized by ASES, one of the nation’s leading associations of solar professionals and advocates.