Carbon sequestration is part of the clean energy equation

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To ambitiously mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change, we must decarbonize our energy systems. While switching our energy sources to renewables like wind and solar power is critical, carbon sequestration is also an important part of the puzzle. Fast-tracking deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is crucial to reducing emissions from the industrial sector as well as power plants. Improving our vegetation and soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon through land management interventions and conservation promotes ecological co-benefits and boosts our climate’s resiliency.

Fresh Energy has conducted an expansion of our work on soil carbon sequestration over the past year, and we are prepared to expand this work in 2019. Here is what we’ve found so far:

Sequestering carbon on solar sites is a must

Solar energy is booming in the United States and over the next twelve years more than three million acres of land will be used for ground-mounted solar arrays. If planted with deep-rooted prairie plants, these sites can provide a powerful combination of renewable electricity, pollinator habitat, water filtration, and carbon sequestration.

Solar sites planted with deep-rooted, perennial vegetation have a clear value for carbon sequestration. As the plants grow, they draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the air. The carbon that remains within the plants is combined with water and converted into sugars that fuel growth. Carbon is stored within the plants over time as they put on additional biomass, in above—and below—ground tissues. Because solar sites are not part of a rotational crop system, there is no chance that vegetation will be removed and cause the project to lose its carbon sequestration value. Further, because solar sites are privately owned and managed through lease agreements, it leverages an untapped form of land ownership with guarantees that plantings will be actively managed over multiple decades.

We need to move from gravel and turf grass—the solar industry standard—to pollinator habitat on sites with state-defined species selected by scientists to provide the highest ecological value. Pollinator-friendly solar has been successful across the country in generating bipartisan collaboration and deep engagement with agricultural and conservation voices, from corn grower associations to Pheasants Forever. Several major utilities, including Xcel Energy, have committed to making vegetated solar sites a criterion for their solar installation requests for proposals. A number of major solar developers, including Engie, one of the world’s largest independent power producers, have make a commitment to using deep rooted native plants as their standard operating procedure.

In the coming year we will be using data from this and other projects to quantify the carbon sequestration value of existing, potential, and planned solar installations and elevating our findings with solar developers, utilities, and agricultural interests.

Advancing carbon sequestration through the Farm Bill is a clear opportunity

Experts working at the intersection of agriculture and energy have conducted in identifying agricultural practices that have significant carbon sequestration benefits. Fresh Energy supports Farm Bill changes that would offer stronger incentives for practices that maximize the carbon sequestration potential within agricultural programs such the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP). Minnesota’s Congressional delegation is working with this issue and we are engaging multiple energy and agriculture partners in pushing for change.

Pushing for maximum sequestration in low carbon fuel options will happen

Fresh Energy is providing energy and carbon sequestration expertise for a team of partners working to advance a Clean Fuels Initiative (i.e. Low Carbon Fuel Standard) in Minnesota. This partnership is currently dominated by agricultural interests and we are working to ensure that policy recommendations coming out of this process include benefits for decarbonizing the transportation system as well as lasting and significant carbon sequestration measures in relevant corn ethanol and soybean farming.

Moving forward, Fresh Energy’s work on energy—including our push for a carbon-neutral economy by 2045—raises additional market opportunities for negative emission initiatives in soil carbon sequestration. Our Public Utilities Commission’s adoption of the social cost of carbon (of approximately $10-40 per ton CO2 equivalent) for utility energy investments creates an opening for the next administration to apply environmental values to all decision making including agricultural policy.

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