If you’ve been around for a while, you know how much we at Transect care about making the development of clean energy easier. Whether we’re breaking down the new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to mine for hacks or giving you a step-by-step guide to starting a solar farm, we’re all about maximizing the potential of solar and wind.
The thing is, how quickly we create clean energy boils down to how quickly we can identify the right sites for wind and solar installations. It’s not enough simply to point at a nice piece of land and throw a solar power plant on it, either. (Though if it were, we’d definitely use a laser pointer. It’s a total power move.) From environmental due diligence to funding, turning a potential solar site into a power generation station is a years-long road. Additionally, the IRA has led to talks of increased energy storage and solar jobs, further extending the development process with a drastic solar land grab.
Happily, we can streamline the solar development process in a number of ways. One such way is narrowing down where to search for land, which is the subject of today’s post. Let’s take a look at the wrong places – as well as the right ones.
Where to Build Solar Energy: Maybe Not Where You'd Think
The phrase “too much of a good thing” usually refers to chocolate sundaes or spiked hot chocolate. (So, mostly chocolate things.) Yet it is just as applicable to the sun.
No, we’re not talking red-hot sunburns, though you should definitely up your SPF like a responsible adult. We’re talking solar panels.
“You might envision vast solar farms stretching across the sun-scorched lands of the Southwest,” Mother Jones says, calling out pretty much everyone who’s ever envisioned a solar farm. But in fact, “a much different kind of landscape makes the most sense for harvesting solar power: the land currently occupied by food farms.”
Wait, so why not the deserts? There’s, like, so much sun there, right?
The problem is that the silicon-based solar photovoltaic panels don’t love soaring temperatures. “Most important for this power, of course, is abundant sunlight, which is why deserts make tempting sites for solar energy production,” Mother Jones continues. “But air temperature is important, too. Above the threshold of 78°F, the hotter it gets outside, the less efficient PV panels are at converting sunlight to electricity.”
Places to Avoid Siting Solar Farms
Much to our disappointment, we just don’t have the technology right now to make the most of those blazing Southwestern wastelands – though it’s very possible we will someday, the rate of technological growth being what it is. For now, however, solar companies should avoid:
Scorching desert: Unfortunately, the robust heat of true desert is more appropriate for roasting a turkey than for installing solar panels and power lines. Boo.
Places with lots of trees: This is kind of a clean energy “duh,” but you need sunlight for solar panels to work.
Large wetland areas: Although solar panel technology is highly water-resistant and can share space with wildlife, true wetlands are better used for conservation purposes.
Sites far from the grid: Interconnection is a pain-in-the-arse and takes forever, and installing lots of transmission lines is expensive. Look for areas that are already within a few miles of substations.
And what’s this we hear about food farms? Well, turns out that the very places our crops love are also the places solar panels are happiest, which is why valuable greenfield land is so desirable. The good news is solar projects can absolutely share space with agriculture, grazing, and other applications – as long as you find the right sites.
10 Best Places for Solar Sites in the US
So now we know that sun isn’t everything. You also need the right temperatures and some friendly regulations to get you started. Which states in the union offer those, you’re wondering? Here are the top 10.
Surprising literally no one, California is the absolute best place to develop solar power. Home to more than the shining city of Los Angeles, it’s got lots of sun and super solar-friendly legislation, which is probably why it boasted three of the 10 biggest solar farms in the US as of 2021. You can’t go wrong with Cali if you’re an investor or utility-scale developer. So many megawatts!
2. North Carolina
For people who imagine desert states, North Carolina might come as a surprise. However, it’s a shoo-in for solar power, with tons of sunny days, great tax credits, and net metering for private citizens. While the last doesn’t affect commercial installations, it does demonstrate NC’s commitment to the cause, which is probably how it ended up No. 4 in installed solar capacity at the end of the 3rd quarter in 2021.
3. New Jersey
Not just for real housewives, New Jersey is also committed to solar. It’s not only a leader in installed private PV systems, aka rooftop solar for homeowners, but it also has a bunch of commercial projects underway in recent years. One of these is a huge solar grazing endeavor – go sheep!
One of the sunniest states in the nation, Colorado has more than 300 days of sunshine a year. However, it’s not a burning desert; keeping those solar panels nice and cool so they can operate at top production margins.
While it does lose pretty handily to California, Nevada is No. 2 when it comes to largest solar farms in the nation, with two of the remaining 10 biggest installations. Although it’s still facing its share of NIMBY (and what would have been the largest farm in the nation was canceled because of it), Nevada has tons of potential outside of all of our Las Vegas dreams.
Unsurprisingly, the Sunshine State is a great place for solar power. Not only does our home star shine brightly here, but the average year-round temperature is 72 degrees. It’s kind of a perfect recipe.
There’s a reason the Phoenix Suns are named after the hottest part of our solar system. Arizona is the sunniest state in the nation, and while parts of it are very hot, other parts are milder and better suited to solar power. There’s plenty of room for more farms, but Arizona is already winning prizes, helping to power parts of California and taking home the final slot in the top 10 biggest US installations.
9. New Mexico
New Mexico is what we experts like to call “sunny as heck.” Like its neighbor Arizona, it is already a major player in the solar energy revolution.
Texas is ranked sixth in solar power potential in America, and it’s time we made better use of that. Even if they aren’t the friendliest state when it comes to renewable energy sources, we’re all going to need it sooner or later, so get on board, Texas!
Sorry New York, Hawaii, Indiana, and Massachusetts!
There’s no such thing as a “bad place” to install a solar farm. Even your typically gloomy states such as Alaska, Oregon, Washington and the Dakotas can generate plenty of clean energy with the right technology and incentives.
However, US solar and wind energy generation is a matter of national importance. Creating the power we need to break away from fossil fuels, lower our greenhouse emissions, and fight climate change means making the most of sunny states where it’s easy to farm solar, then funneling that power to areas that aren’t as equipped. Concentrating solar power in these ideal areas means there is a higher chance those solar PV panels can soak up that sunshine and work their magic. These top 10 states are excellent places to start making those changes to make our electrical grid a lot more sustainable.