It Takes 2.8 Acres of Land to Generate 1GWh of Solar Energy Per Year, Says NREL

August 1, 2013 By Linda Hardesty

NREL mapThe Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has published a report on the land use requirements of solar power plants based on actual land-use practices from existing solar facilities.

The report, Land-use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States, shows results from data gathered from 72 percent of the solar power plants installed or under construction in the United States. Among the findings:

  • A large fixed tilt photovoltaic plant that generates 1 GWh per year requires, on average, 2.8 acres for the solar panels. This means that a solar power plant that provides all of the electricity for 1,000 homes would require 32 acres of land.
  • Small single-axis PV systems require on average 2.9 acres per annual GWh – or 3.8 acres when considering all unused area that falls inside the project boundary.
  • Concentrating solar power plants require on average 2.7 acres for solar collectors and other equipment per annual GWh; 3.5 acres for all land enclosed within the project boundary.

By the third quarter of 2012, the United States had deployed more than 2.1 GW of utility-scale solar generation capacity. Another 4.6 GW was under construction.

The report authors found that many of the solar land-use ranges and estimates used in anecdotal literature are very close to actual solar land use requirements. These land-use estimates can also be compared with other energy-production land uses. For example, a study by Vasilis Fthenakis and Hung Chul Kim of Columbia University (2009) found that, on a life-cycle electricity-output basis – including direct and indirect land transformation – utility-scale PV in the Southwest requires less land than the average US power plant using surface-mined coal.

A previous NREL report, “Land-use Requirements and the Per-capita Solar Footprint for Photovoltaic Generation in the United States,” had estimated that if solar energy was to meet 100 percent of all electricity demand in the US, it would take up 0.6 percent of the total area in the country.

4 comments on “It Takes 2.8 Acres of Land to Generate 1GWh of Solar Energy Per Year, Says NREL

  1. We shouldn’t compare this to coal or gas plants. We should compare this to the amount of acreage permanently lost under hydro. This beats the everloving pants off of typical hydro.

    In Alabama, the average acres of full reservoir per MW of hydro nampelate is 112 acres/MW.

    NREL says 2.8 acres can make 1GWh/year, which is 114kW. That’s derated power, not nameplate. That’s 24 acres/MW. Nameplate capacity would be 4 acres/MW!

    Compare 4 acres/MW for solar to 112 acres/MW for hydroelectric. If new hydro can be built where possible because it doesn’t pollute like coal and gas, then it looks like we should be rolling out solar with wild abandon.

  2. Also we should be looking at building more solar on the roofs of commercial buildings, so much space is already available. The solar panels will help keep rain and the sun off the normal building roof which will increase the building lifespan as well.

  3. There are lots of benefits that come from hydro that you don’t get with solar or wind. The watersheds and lakes used for recreation have a tremendous value to society.

  4. Solar power plants remain the most versatile, easily-deployed and environmentally friendly of all energy sources so far.

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