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Techno–ecological synergies of solar energy for global sustainability


The strategic engineering of solar energy technologies—from individual rooftop modules to large solar energy power plants—can confer significant synergistic outcomes across industrial and ecological boundaries. Here, we propose techno–ecological synergy (TES), a framework for engineering mutually beneficial relationships between technological and ecological systems, as an approach to augment the sustainability of solar energy across a diverse suite of recipient environments, including land, food, water, and built-up systems. We provide a conceptual model and framework to describe 16 TESs of solar energy and characterize 20 potential techno–ecological synergistic outcomes of their use. For each solar energy TES, we also introduce metrics and illustrative assessments to demonstrate techno–ecological potential across multiple dimensions. The numerous applications of TES to solar energy technologies are unique among energy systems and represent a powerful frontier in sustainable engineering to minimize unintended consequences on nature associated with a rapid energy transition.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual model demonstrating how TESs of solar energy produce mutually beneficial technological and ecological synergistic outcomes that serve to mitigate global change-type challenges.
Fig. 2: Framework for TESs of solar energy development.
Fig. 3: Techno–ecological synergies of solar energy and examples of techno–ecological synergistic outcomes.

Dennis Schroeder, NREL (a left, d right); © 2018 Google (c); Greg Allen, Far Niente Winery (d left)


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We thank K. Lamy for assisting with graphic design and A. Diene for informational contributions. Funding for R.R.H. was provided by the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship; Agricultural Experiment Station Hatch projects CA-R-A-6689-H and CA-D-LAW-2352-H; the California Energy Commission (EPC-15-060); the Department of Land, Air, and Water Resources at University of California Davis (UCD); and the John Muir Institute of the Environment, UCD. Funding for A.A. was provided by a NERC Industrial Innovation Fellowship (NE/R013489/1). Funding for M.K.H. was provided, in part, by the Energy Graduate Group, UCD. Funding for R.D. was provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) through the InSPIRE Project. This work was authored, in part, by NREL (G.A.H., J.M.), operated by Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC, for the US Department of Energy (DOE) under Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308. Funding provided by the US Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency (EERE) and Renewable Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO), Agreement No. 34165. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily represent the views of the DOE, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the US Government. The US Government retains and the publisher, by accepting the article for publication, acknowledges that the US Government retains a nonexclusive, paid-up, irrevocable, worldwide license to publish or reproduce the published form of this work, or allow others to do so, for US Government purposes.

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R.R.H initiated the research and led the conceptual design and writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to further content development and drafting of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rebecca R. Hernandez.

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S.B.E. declares Wells Fargo to be his employer wherein he acts as a financier of solar and wind energy projects. All other authors declare no competing interests.

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Hernandez, R.R., Armstrong, A., Burney, J. et al. Techno–ecological synergies of solar energy for global sustainability. Nat Sustain 2, 560–568 (2019).

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