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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — California is a national leader in the development of renewable energy. But the development of energy systems is driven more by financial than environmental considerations, leaving customers more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has determined.

Sean Kennedy is a professor of urban and regional planning whose research interests include energy systems. It examined private investments in solar energy infrastructure in North Los Angeles County, including financial beneficiaries and the environmental benefits and costs of development. Kennedy and co-author Ryan Stock of Northern Michigan University reported their findings in the online journal Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space.

California is one of the most challenging regions in the country, with threats of wildfires, heat waves and drought. The region studied by Kennedy and Stock presents itself as the “alternative energy capital of the world”. But more than progressive climate policies, Kennedy said, it was environmental and economic crises that drove the private development of energy systems in the state — including the climate crisis, the state’s uneven economic development, and polarization. income, an energy crisis that included blackouts, the global financial crisis of 2007-09, and the energy industry’s difficulty in generating profits.

Regulatory changes in California’s energy industry following its energy crisis have called for more energy from renewable sources and increased capacity. Renewable energy systems are land-intensive, but persistent water shortages have reduced the economic viability of irrigated agriculture, and the collapse of the housing market has created vacant land that would no longer be developed. in housing. Large areas of devalued rural land, in a region most at risk from extreme heat, have been transformed by being covered with huge arrays of solar panels, Kennedy said.

Solar development required private investment to supplement public spending, the researchers found. In order for the projects to be valuable investments, the developers managed their financial risks by increasing the size of the projects and spreading the risks over several projects. Large solar developers are looking to build or acquire new projects to spread their risk and generate more profits, making it easier to get low-cost loans.

This funding model depends on large-scale infrastructure, Kennedy said, but overlooks environmental risks that can make the system more vulnerable to climate extremes.

The result is an energy system characterized by a few very large power plants connected to consumers over long transmission lines, rather than a more distributed system serving closer communities. That leaves consumers vulnerable to an extreme weather event 1,000 miles away, Kennedy said.

“It’s a precarious arrangement,” he said.

The population in the study area, Antelope Valley, is expected to grow, and the region will also likely experience some of the largest increases in extreme heat days.

“They expect a strong demand for air conditioning. This puts a strain on the existing power grid infrastructure. Concentrating much of the state’s future energy supply in this environment will exacerbate vulnerabilities in the existing grid,” Kennedy said.

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