Techno–ecological synergies of solar energy for global sustainability

Authors: Rebecca R. Hernandez, Alona Armstrong, Jennifer Burney, Greer Ryan, Kara Moore-O’Leary, Ibrahima Diédhiou, Steven M. Grodsky, Leslie Saul-Gershenz, Rob Davis, Jordan Macknick, Dustin Mulvaney, Garvin A. Heath, Shane B. Easter, Madison K. Hoffacker, Michael F. Allen & Daniel M. Kammen

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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