Windiest or Sunniest Sites Not Necessarily Best for Wind and Solar

Social benefits of renewable energy vary significantly based on where it is generated; looking at energy output isn’t enough

3 min read
Windiest or Sunniest Sites Not Necessarily Best for Wind and Solar
Benefit to Society? Solar farms in sunny Arizona may make the most electricity, but the generation it replaces isn't very polluting.
Photo: David Nunuk/Getty Images

Setting up wind and solar farms in places where the wind blows mightiest or the sun shines brightest isn’t the wisest move if you’re looking to reap the most social benefits, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found.

They estimate that the environmental, health, and climate benefits of wind turbines and solar panels vary dramatically by location, ranging from US $10 to $100 per megawatt-hour (in 2010 dollars) of renewable energy generated. The results appeared last week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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