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Newly installed solar panels cover the roof of the FedEx parcel depot in Washington, D.C. Handout photo by FedEx.

U.S.A. - Renewables 'frenzy' puts land conflicts on corporate radar

As big firms from Apple to PepsiCo target net-zero emissions, there is hot demand for renewable energy projects that reduce the risk of protests over land use or wildlife impact

  • Soaring demand for green energy spurs solar initiatives
  • New guidelines aim to avoid disputes over land, wildlife
  • Several big wind power projects blocked due to protests

WASHINGTON, June 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On the ground, workers load up vans before drivers fan out from the vast Washington parcel depot to make deliveries across the U.S. capital. On the roof, 3,000 solar panels silently do their own job - feeding clean energy into the city's power grid.

By taking advantage of a large, unused rooftop space in a dense urban area, developers of the nearly 1-megawatt solar project on top of a FedEx building say it could serve as a model of smart land use as the United States aims for 100% clean power generation by 2035.

Such rooftop setups are becoming more common in parts of the country as solar project developers and planning officials seek to reduce land competition and opposition from local residents, which complicated the early development of wind farms.

"Not developing new land is obviously a big (priority), and we're always looking to do that," said Mark Cooper, engineering director at Sol Systems, the project's developer, standing among the shimmering sweep of high-efficiency panels.

"Even when we're on the ground, we're looking to recondition brownfield sites and similar places," he said.

FedEx said the project, which was officially launched in May, could be a template for more of its large buildings across the country.

The package company, which has a goal of making its operations carbon-neutral by 2040, is also allocating credits to a local homelessness nonprofit to offset their electricity bills.

Solar projects can have an enormous footprint - 1 megawatt of solar power often requires 5 to 10 acres (2 to 4 hectares) of land, analysts said. That has fueled new efforts to provide guidance on where solar farms should be located.

Newly installed solar panels cover the roof of the FedEx parcel depot in Washington, D.C. Handout photo by FedEx.

Some voluntary industry guidelines exist around the siting of wind turbines, which have been around longer, but there is nothing similar yet for solar, said Nathan Cummins, director of renewable energy programs at the Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit.

"There's a history of conflict with energy development," he said. "Now solar is taking off in a big way, and we want to get ahead of it in a way we couldn't with wind."

The Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment on plans for renewables siting guidance.

WILDLIFE CONFLICTS

Last year, renewables made up about 12% of U.S. electricity consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, though President Joe Biden has set a goal of creating a power sector that is carbon pollution-free by 2035.

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