Study: 1 Percent of Land Needed To Meet Solar Energy Needs

Turks already harness the sun to heat water in Turkish cities | Photo: Todd Radenbaugh/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A report just published by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF, formerly World Wildlife Fund), in cooperation with FirstSolar, concludes that seven large regions around thew world could meet their need for energy by covering less than one percent of their land area with photovoltaic panels. The report, released last week in conjunction with the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, concludes that's "an insignificant amount of total land area [of the countries examined], contrary to common perception." But what does that mean for California?

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The WWF report, "Solar PV Atlas: solar power in harmony with nature," looks at Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Morocco, South Africa, Turkey, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and concludes that people in those countries could easily meet their anticipated 2050 energy needs with one percent or less of their land area if they used only solar photovoltaic panels to generate power.

According to the report:

[With its selection of diverse areas,] the atlas illustrates that PV technology, when well-planned, does not conflict with conservation goals. On a macro level, no country or region must choose between solar PV and space for humans and nature. Quite the opposite. As climate change threatens humans and the environment, it is more important than ever to work for the efficient and wide-scale adoption of well sited, responsibly and effectively operated renewable energy generation facilities. Environmental protection and renewable energy can and must develop in parallel.

The countries discussed in the report are not industrial giants. Some could reasonably be called underdeveloped; others, such as Mexico, South Africa and Turkey, are at least partly industrialized. The range of energy consumption per capita varies widely among the countries studied, from 45 kilowatt-hours per year per capita in Madagascar to more than a hundred times that, 4,600 kilowatt-hours per year, in South Africa. Clearly, the less energy a nation uses, the less capacity is needed to meet that demand -- but the more likely it is that demand will grow dramatically as the country's people work to improve their standards of living.

The report's study of Turkey offers the opportunity to make comparisons with California, as each region enjoys roughly similar climates and amounts of solar energy. Turkey and California each produce similar amounts of electrical power each year as well. According to the report, Turkey's annual electrical power production is 211,000 Gigawatt-hours per year, while California's is slightly higher at 250,384 gigawatt-hours per year.

According to the report, Turkey could meet its current energy needs using 790 square kilometers of solar panels -- about 305 square miles. Assuming equivalent productivity in solar panels, California could meet its current energy needs with just under 940 square kilometers of PV, or about 360 square miles.

That's a square piece of land 19 miles on a side, more or less. That may not seem like much when you compare it to a map of California: It's less than two tenths of a percent of the state's total land area. But two tenths of a percent of California is a lot of land: That 19-mile square would occupy more land than any city in California other than Los Angeles. Imagine photovoltaic panels replacing all of San Jose and Bakersfield; if you did that, you'd still need to toss in Glendale and Arcadia before you'd get close to enough land.

Fortunately, a lot of California's 163,696 square miles is already built on. The U.S. Census bureau reports that our state had 13,720,462 single-family homes in 2011; putting an average of 740 square feet of PV panels on each of those houses gets us to that 360 square miles of solar. That's an area of less than 40 feet by 20 feet, and that's ignoring all the warehouse roofs, parking lots, and other multi-acre flat surfaces that could be outfitted with solar.

A big flaw in the WWF-FirstSolar report: Solar panels don't produce power at night, meaning that with current technology, no society larger than a few households can run entirely on solar photovoltaic power. The authors admit as much, but say that the issue of power storage -- a necessary advance should we wish to move to intermittent power sources like solar -- is beyond the scope of their report.

The solar consulting firms 3TIER and Fresh Generation also assisted in the preparation of the report.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Thanks for doing the math Chris! Two additional points worth mentioning: (1) remote, central solar needs costly (up to $1.5 million/mile) new transmission and incurs up to 15% transmission losses, making point of use generation considerably more efficient and cost effective, and (2) local solar gives people and communities a direct stake in renewable energy, thus vastly improving public support for increasing investments.