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A historic agreement aims to pave the way for large scale solar farms

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, the U.S. is going to need a lot more solar panels. Those solar arrays need to go somewhere, sometimes in forests or on farmland or on Indigenous lands. And that can pit the solar industry against people inclined to support them, like conservation groups or agricultural interests or Native tribes. Yesterday some of those major stakeholders announced what they are calling an historic agreement to address land use issues and hopefully make it easier to install more panels in more places. Dan Reicher led these talks. He is a senior research fellow at the Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment. Thanks for joining us.

DAN REICHER: Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Walk us through what this agreement achieves.

REICHER: The agreement, we hope, will advance large-scale solar development to fight climate change but, at the same time, promote land conservation and support local community interests. It's a tall order, but we think we can get there.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us a specific example of a place where you think this might open the door for a project that could otherwise have been caught up?

REICHER: There's a variety of places. One is - you mentioned agricultural lands. You know, there's increasingly the ability to integrate solar panels into farm fields by raising the height of the panels, by spreading them apart. Another would be on what we call disturbed lands - old surface mining sites, old toxic waste sites that have been cleaned up, shut down. There's a great example in Kentucky where an old coal surface mine is being redeveloped, and it'll have enough solar panels to serve almost 175,000 people. So we've got good places to do it.

SHAPIRO: What do you do about the large, influential groups that actively oppose and continue to fight solar projects? I mean, how much of the basic problem of finding locations for these developments does the deal actually solve?

REICHER: Well, I think that's part of the problem. There is some active opposition. But if you can make the projects more attractive to communities, if you can make the projects more acceptable to conservation and environmental groups, we're bringing the price of solar down dramatically. Give you an example - you know, say you've got to build a thousand-acre solar project. Well, what about protecting - permanently protecting another thousand acres adjacent to it and not just protecting but restoring parts of it? That's a deal you can really work out.

SHAPIRO: To take a step back, the U.S. has a lot of homes, businesses, shopping malls, warehouses. Why isn't roof space enough? Why are solar farms needed in the first place?

REICHER: I would love to think that the rooftops of America could do it, but the problem is we are talking about an absolutely massive amount of land to really address climate. We're talking about land that's roughly the equivalent of the entire state of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. We might be able to do 15 or 20% of what we need to do in this country with rooftop solar and urban projects, but we got to go to the big, big properties if we're going to really make a big difference.

SHAPIRO: Given the scale of the need, you offered a couple examples of easy wins - an unused mine that can now be turned into a solar development. But are there going to have to be a lot of projects that aren't easy wins, that don't have an ideal resolution, where there are going to have to be trade-offs?

REICHER: There are indeed going to be trade-offs. There are, you know, ideal places where you want to go initially. There are going to be tougher places where you need to go. But I think as communities get more comfortable with this, as conservation groups get more comfortable - you know, we have the largest conservation group in the country, the Nature Conservancy, having led this negotiation from the environmental side. But the good news is there are plenty of places to build these projects where I think we can find acceptable resolutions and get these built and really address climate change.

SHAPIRO: That's Dan Reicher, a senior research fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and lead broker of a new solar development agreement. Thank you very much.

REICHER: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kai McNamee
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.