Renewable energy is a promising alternative to fossil fuel-based energy, but its development can require a complex set of environmental tradeoffs. A recent increase in solar energy systems, especially large, centralized installations, underscores the urgency of understanding their environmental interactions. Synthesizing literature across numerous disciplines, we review direct and indirect environmental impacts – both beneficial and adverse – of utility-scale solar energy (USSE) development, including impacts on biodiversity, land-use and land-cover change, soils, water resources, and human health. Additionally, we review feedbacks between USSE infrastructure and land-atmosphere interactions and the potential for USSE systems to mitigate climate change. Several characteristics and development strategies of USSE systems have low environmental impacts relative to other energy systems, including other renewables. We show opportunities to increase USSE environmental co-benefits, the permitting and regulatory constraints and opportunities of USSE, and highlight future research directions to better understand the nexus between USSE and the environment. Increasing the environmental compatibility of USSE systems will maximize the efficacy of this key renewable energy source in mitigating climatic and global environmental change.
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Environmental impacts of utility-scale solar energy