Unintended Outcome? Required Solar Panels on New Houses Limits Future Urban Forest

Unintended Outcome? Required Solar Panels on New Houses Limits Future Urban Forest

At today’s meeting of the California Energy Commission, an update to the California Building Energy Efficiency Standards was passed that would require solar panels on the roof of all new residential construction.  In the abstract, I am a strong supporter of distributed solar generation, especially as a means to reduce impacts to wildlands from extensive solar arrays and distribution systems.  The update was passed through on a Negative Declaration, with no adverse impacts to the environment anticipated.

Required solar photovoltaic panels on all new construction, however, will dramatically impact the ability of developers of and neighbors to new housing to plant and maintain trees for shade and their other benefits.  California has a solar shade law, the Solar Shade Control Act, which prohibits planting of trees and shrubs that would shade more than 10% of an active or passive solar collector between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

The net result of these two regulations is that the number, type, and location of trees that can be planted in new housing developments will be dramatically constrained, and those living next to new construction will be constrained from planting trees for beneficial shade if they might eventually shade the solar panels next door. I don’t think the Energy Commission thought about this, or at least they didn’t include it in their environmental review. The conflict between urban forest benefits and the solar shade law has implications for stormwater management because trees reduce peak flows and help to improve stormwater quality.

Obviously there is a tradeoff between access to the sun for solar power and the benefits of a healthy urban forest.  The ability to have both an urban forest and distributed solar generation depends on planners, urban designers, and regulators working out the tradeoffs ahead of time — figuring out the lost benefits from shade trees (to biodiversity, local temperature and cooling costs, stormwater quality and quality) relative to the energy savings from solar panels not being shaded.

Let me know what you think. Have I missed something?

Travis Longcore, Ph.D.
May 9, 2018

(Award-winning) Light Pollution Research at USC Undergraduate Symposium

(Award-winning) Light Pollution Research at USC Undergraduate Symposium

We participated in force in the 20th University of Southern California Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work. Our contributions included:

  1. Classification System for National Park Sites Based on Nightscape Lighting Profiles (Harrison Knapp and Benjamin Banet)
  2. Spatiotemporal Analysis of Lighted Boats at Night (Eliza Gutierrez-Dewar)
  3. A Photographic Light Pollution Assessment Across Western Public Lands (Benjamin Banet)
  4. Characterization of Spatial and Spectral Distribution of Outdoor Lighting at Wrigley Marine Science Center (Camille Verendia, Lisa Cortright, and Jasper McEvoy)

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    Amanda Gilmore, who worked this semester on habitat modeling for invasive lionfish, presented her ongoing work with our colleague Dr. An-Min Wu.

    Awards were won. Eliza took the 2nd Place award in physical sciences for her work analyzing squid boat lights off the coast of California, while Ben won Honorable Mention for his field work documenting light pollution on public lands across much of the American West with hemispherical photography.


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    Acknowledgments are in order. Funding from the Undergraduate Research Associates Program, Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, and Student Opportunities for Undergraduate Research (all at USC) made this work possible.  We also had funding from the National Park Service via the Southern California Research Learning Center for part of Ben’s work (the part in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and Channel Islands National Park).  Eliza’s work was made possible by collaboration with Chris Elvidge at NOAA, who provided the outputs of their boat detection algorithm. The Wrigley Institute and Wrigley Marine Science Center supported the lighting assessment there with travel, room, and board. Photos from the symposium and awards dinner are by Susan Kamei; I was at the AAG annual meeting.

Lab Work in Knowable Magazine Profile

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 9.38.02 PM.pngReporter Stephanie Pain contributed an excellent summary of recent research on light pollution, “There Goes the Night,” with interviews and summaries of research from around the world.  Knowable Magazine is the partner publication to the Annual Reviews series, which recently published a review from the Gaston lab, Impacts of Artificial Light at Night on Biological Timings.  Our favorite part, however, is that the article included an image from Ben Banet, who graduates this spring with an interdisciplinary B.S. in conservation and GIS that focused on light pollution.  His image of the Smithsonian research hut on Mt. Whitney with the glow of Los Angeles on the horizon 285 km in the distance provided a striking illustration for the article.

Two light pollution research updates

I’m usually one to announce research results and not grant funding, but the funders put out a release and Tweet, so it is officially news that we are starting a new 2-year project: Coast Light: Actionable Science to Manage Coastal Nightscapes. The funding is from USC Sea Grant and includes in-kind contributions from many partners that will make the project possible — including data, labor, and/or time from Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (collaborating on measuring influence of light on settlement rates of marine invertebrates), The Aerospace Corporation (providing coastal night light measurements by cubesat!), Los Angeles Audubon Society and the many volunteer snowy plover monitors, and Professor Karen Martin at Pepperdine (grunion data).  More about the project as it develops — I’ll be co-advising a Ph.D. student from Biological Sciences who will be the official Sea Grant Trainee on the project.


Preliminary results from analysis of radiance-weighted nighttime boat detections by month off the coast of southern California (Gutierrez-Dewar, Elvidge, and Longcore, unpublished data).

Our Park Light research efforts are coming to an interim head, as at least three lab members will present at the Los Angeles Geospatial Summit on February 23.  Harrison Knapp and Ben Banet will present a classification of National Park Service units based on the lighting conditions inside the parks and in buffers surrounding them, so that parks can know what other parks face similar issues for light pollution management.  Eliza Gutierrez-Dewar has some very interesting results looking at the spatial and temporal distribution of squid boats off the Pacific Coast, which can be identified using night lights because of the bright lights used by squid fishers to attract the squid up near the surface where they can be caught.  This project builds on data produced by an automated boat detection algorithm developed by Chris Elvidge’s group at NOAA and is of significant interest to land managers looking to protect sensitive seabird nesting sites from excessive light (and associated predation risk) during nesting season. We may have another poster, but I have not reviewed the final program yet.

Drivers of plant community structure on San Clemente Island

Drivers of plant community structure on San Clemente Island

A third paper from our collaboration with Scott Loss and post-doc Shishir Paudel at Oklahoma State University has been published in Ecosphere.  This paper analyzes the vegetation data collected as Shishir searched for invasive earthworms on the island.

Determinants of native and non-native plant community structure on an oceanic island

Shishir Paudel, Juan C. Benavides, Beau MacDonald, Travis Longcore, Gail W. T. Wilson, and Scott R. Loss

Understanding the relative importance of environmental and anthropogenic factors in driving plant community structure, including relative dominance of native and non-native species, helps predict community responses to biological invasions. To assess factors influencing plant communities on San Clemente Island, USA, we conducted an islandwide vegetation survey in which we measured plant species richness and percent cover of native and non-native plants, as well as physical environmental variables, soil chemical properties, abundance of soil microbial functional groups (e.g., arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi [AMF]), and a human disturbance variable (distance to road). We found that total plant species richness decreased with increasing non-native plant cover, soil pH, and AMF abundance. Native plant cover increased with increasing distance to a major paved road and decreased with increasing soil moisture and pH. Non-native plant cover decreased with increasing distance to a major paved road and increased with increasing soil moisture, AMF abundance, and from southwest to northeast, a geographic/climatic gradient that represents increasing moisture. Nonmetric multidimensional scaling ordination further illustrated that trends in plant community composition were correlated with elevation, distance to a major paved road, and soil moisture, organic matter, and ammonium. These results suggest complex effects of physical environmental, soil chemical, and human-related factors on plant community structure on an oceanic island, and moreover, that different factors affect cover of native and non-native plants. Notably, our observation of apparent moisture limitation of non-native plants suggests that, in some contexts, drought conditions can limit plant invasions and may even represent an opportunity for efficient control or eradication of invasive plants. The apparent negative effect of non-native plants on native plant cover and overall plant species richness represents a conservation concern for native biodiversity on oceanic islands and suggests the potential for community reassembly as invasive species increasingly dominate due to anthropogenic disturbances.

Paudel, S., J. C. Benavides, B. MacDonald, T. Longcore, G. W. T. Wilson, and S. R. Loss. 2017. Determinants of native and non-native plant community structure on an oceanic island. Ecosphere 8(9):e01927. 10.1002/ecs2.1927