When comparing the advantages and disadvantages of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, how much real estate each requires to generate electricity is a key factor. While power plants that use coal or natural gas need acres of land to extract natural resources as well as the facility itself, solar can function with surprisingly little. A new report by Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has established that only 32 acres is required to power 1,000 homes.
The NREL data comes from 72% of the installed or planned solar power plants in the United States. The team led by Sean Ong states that a fixed PV plant that generates 1 gigawatt hour per year uses 2.8 acres of solar panels, translating into a figure of 32 acres of land to power 1,000 homes. Small, single axis PV plants need 2.9 acres to create the same amount of yearly electricity, though that expands to 3.8 when considering the total amount of land within the project. Concentrating solar power plants require 2.7 acres for their equipment and 3.5 acres overall.
“The numbers aren’t good or bad news. It’s just that there was not an understanding of actual land-use requirements before this work. However, we were happy to find out that many of the solar land use ranges and estimates used in this literature are very close to actual solar land use requirements that we found,” say the authors.
The NREL also state that by the third quarter of 2012, the United States delivered more than 2.1 gigawatts of solar energy with an additional 4.6 gigawatts in the works. A past NREL study found that if solar was to power the entire country, the infrastructure would take up only 0.6% of the nation’s total area. The researchers hope that their report will arm utilities and politicians with more accurate figures so they can make informed choices. Meanwhile, as solar cells become more efficient and inexpensive, solar can also expand into residential markets, allowing for less new land development solely for the purpose of power generation.