Letter to the Times: Solar project would sacrifice farmland, require fossil energy

Share this post or save for later

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

Would you like to send a letter to the Times? Great! Here’s how to do it.

I want to offer a perspective on the proposed Kaw Valley industrial solar project that considers the deeper energy lifecycle issues. I am concerned that this project actually would lead us to waste more fossil energy resources and sacrifice good farmland in the process.

Choosing between industrial “renewable” energy and a coal-burning plant might at first seem like a clear choice. It sounds clean, safe, sustainable, renewable and almost magical. Swedish researcher Johan Rockström1 captures what is likely our most common assumption and hope about renewable energy: “Once you have invested in wind and solar, you actually have free energy forever.” With exaggerated hopes and assumptions for “renewable” energy, we are seeking a solution that doesn’t require us to change our resource consumption habits.

All “renewable” solar energy equipment requires the dense energy provided by fossil sources for the resource mining, manufacturing processes, multiple modes of transportation involved, equipment and site maintenance, and recycling processes for the retired components that can be “recycled.” When the useful life of equipment (only 25 to 30 years) ends and this equipment cannot be reused or repurposed, a tremendous amount of embodied fossil energy is wasted as more energy resources are consumed “recycling” them. Some components can’t be recycled and add to our stream of wastes, which is accelerated by short equipment lifespans.

Large volumes of fresh water are needed for manufacturing and maintenance. Some of that water is contaminated in the process and is also becoming a scarcer resource. Water also takes energy to pump and purify.

Seibert and Rees draw this conclusion in their paper, Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition2: “In short, no RE (renewable energy) source or system is viable if it cannot generate sufficient energy both to produce itself (literally from the ground up) and supply a sufficient surplus for society’s end-use consumption.”

A related concerning conclusion is found in Nate Hagens’ paper, Economics for the Future – Beyond the Superorganism3: “Likewise, renewables are adding energy, not replacing hydrocarbons. If this continues, renewables will continue to scale, but only as part of a larger energy dissipating, CO2 emitting structure.” 

Focused research like this has shown that solar photovoltaics and other “renewable” applications will never have the scalar capacity to support the manufacturing of renewable energy equipment. Large quantities of fossil fuel energy will always be required to create and maintain industrial solar systems.

The extraction locations contribute to intolerable social injustices that include health risks, water and air contamination and long-term ecological damage for the people and the environment. The fouled air and water from these processes will also affect all of us.

In Samuel Alexander’s paper, Ted Trainer and The Simpler Way4, he emphasizes Trainer’s point “that if people do not understand the nature and extent of the crises we face, they will tend to misconceive the best responses to those crises and set about working toward goals that cannot solve the problems.” Asking questions from a limited pool of experts such as solar experts, solar engineers and energy providers will not address the deeper aspects of renewable energy’s dependence on fossil fuels, social injustices, consequences of resource consumption, conservation, and appealing alternative lifestyles.

Where will our food come from as more land is sacrificed for “renewable” energy? A couple hundred acres here, another thousand there, adds up fast on this finite planet. Shrinking farmland availability could potentially intensify energy and petroleum-based chemistry-dependent farming methods in other locations as we attempt to meet future capacity needs. Additional food production challenges are already here with the erratic changes in climate. Preservation and protection of our finite wild lands, farmland, and farmers are an existential priority that we should all support.

Reducing consumption (such as a “powering down” paradigm shift) is the only realistic way to address compounding problems which include the increasing CO2 levels that drive climate change, and water and air pollution. Burning coal is exceptionally problematic, but being seduced by the idea of replacing fossil fuels with “renewable” energy development will drag us further into wasteful consumption and deeper consequential problems and predicaments. 

— Byron Wiley (he/him), Lawrence

If this local platform matters to you, please help us keep doing this work.
Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters

Click here to learn more about our newsletters first

More Community Voices:


  1. Johan Rockström, quoted from the film “Before the Flood”
  2. “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition,” by Megan Seibert and William Rees, https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508; The Real Green New Deal website, https://www.realgnd.org
  3. “Economics for the Future – Beyond the Superorganism,” by Nate Hagens, https://www.energyandourfuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/1-s2.0-S0921800919310067-main.pdf
  4. “Ted Trainer and The Simpler Way,” by Samuel Alexander, https://simplicityinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/TedTrainerandTheSimplerWay1.pdf
Previous Article

Mail carrier injured in crash north of Midland Junction

Next Article

University of Kansas receives $1.6 million to launch law clinic dedicated to issues of veterans