Solar Potential of the Largest Commercial Buildings in the United States

Sustainable pathways of land use for energy are necessary to mitigate climate change and limit conversion of finite land resources needed for conservation and food production. In the United States (US), energy development is now the largest driver of land-use and land-cover change, with projections of 800,000 km2 (greater than the state of Texas) of land needed to meet demand by 2040.

Thus, land used for conservation and agriculture may be converted to support energy development, leading to cascading effects on biodiversity, food availability, and climate. Recent studies have validated use of residential and commercial rooftop-photovoltaic (PV) solar energy to meet local and regional renewable energy generation goals across diverse human-dominated landscapes.

Yet, nation-wide siting and technical potential of industrial-scale rooftop PV still need to be quantified and optimized to set and meet sustainability goals for land conservation, energy transition, and climate change moving forward.

This project will provide research on the extent to which large commercial building “LCBs” stocks within the US can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emission impacts associated with electricity generation and the extent to which it rooftop solar on LCBs can contribute to land sparing. Land sparing may fall outside of typical life-cycle assessments; solar facilities built in natural lands may disproportionately contribute to GHGs and may put pressure on limited land resources for agriculture, conservation, and cultural values held by indigenous/tribal groups. The project is high risk because it relies on a computationally demanding and novel application/extension of Aurora’s solar optimization platform to accommodate the incredibly large rooftops (e.g., 59 football fields) of the LCBs for analysis. The project is high reward because our efforts leading to LCB Rooftop PV models could serve as an invaluable resource for LCB owners, stakeholders, and decision-makers interested in developing PV who would otherwise require cost-prohibitive consultation services from technical experts necessitating thousands of dollars of up-front investment.

Our broader dissemination goal for this study is to provide capacity building, data sharing, and knowledge transfer across the LCB Rooftop PV knowledge system (a complex network of actors, organizations, and objects that perform knowledge-related functions, most notably linking knowledge with action) efforts to overcome public awareness and institutional barriers of PV development on LCBs. Achieving this goal may facilitate a rapid “low carbon” and “low land” footprint transition, where unintended consequences on ecosystems and their services from solar development are reduced or avoided altogether.

Our researchers count on donor’s generosity to fund:
  • Travel and accommodations to our field sites where we conduct empirical investigations on the ground
  • Salaries and stipends for student internships, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars

Thank you for making your gift today and supporting our mission at this important time. The Wild Energy Initiative of the John Muir Institute of the Environment facilitates impartial research and education on interactions between energy development and Earth, including its systems and species, to address exigent sustainability issues.