California is already leading the U.S. in solar power generation, thanks in large part to more than 1 million homeowners who installed more than 4,300 megawatts of solar as of 2014. The solar spike in California makes a lot of sense when you look at the state's historical utility rates, which are sky-high compared to other parts of the country. Small-scale, distributed generation helps homeowners save on their electricity bills, but what if California took solar power to the next level?

A new study suggests that it is not only possible to implement utility-scale solar power generation in California, it can be done in a way that doesn't require additional land and it will meet the state's energy demands up to five times over. The idea is to incorporate solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and concentrating solar power (CSP) into the existing cityscape as opposed to building massive PV or CSG farms on open swaths of land. The benefits of focusing utility-scale solar within the built environment are many, but these top the list:

  • Power generation is co-located with the end user entirely within the urban landscape
  • Reduced power losses from transmission
  • Lower environmental and land-use or land-cover impacts

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the study is the claim that the potential for California solar development, if tapped, would not only meet, but exceed, the entire state's electricity demands. California is one of the most populated states in the country, and its energy demands are considerable. Add to these the fact that California ecosystems are some of those most vulnerable to climate change, and you have a very pressing need to mitigate climate change effects as soon as possible.

However, utility-scale solar power has its critics. Although the plan would be to capitalize on opportunities within the existing urban landscape, utility-scale solar installations would still impact the micro-landscape – restricting other land-use opportunities or affecting wildlife habitat. Skeptics point out that responsible siting will be key to the overall success of solar installations within urban settings.

Ultimately, California already proved that distributed solar can be successful within the state. Now, California is poised to be a laboratory for utility-scale solar. If its tests are successful, California may serve as the model for other states to implement renewable energy projects on a large scale.

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