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OWOE - Solar Power - How much land does a solar power plant require?
  Figure 1 - Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project (SolarReserve)
Figure 1 - Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project (SolarReserve)
Figure 2 - Surface Area Required to Power the World (Land Art Generator Initiative)
Figure 3 - Photovoltaic Solar Resources - Average Annual Insolation Values (NREL)
How much land does a solar power plant require?
Topic updated: 2016-03-16

Utility scale solar power plants require a significant amount of land due to the number of solar panels required. Modern plants require 5 to 15 acres per MW of capacity. Recent Concentrating Solar Power plants have been between about 10-15 acreas per MW, while Photovoltaic Plants have been in the 5-10 acres per MW range. Figure 1 shows the Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, which comes in at about 14.5 acres per MW. Due to the need for land, the need for steady sunlight, and the high cost for transmission lines, the most logical locations for solar plants are deserts close to major population centers.

Although the land surface required to generate a MW of electricity appears large, on a relative basis it does not appear excessive. In 2009 the Land Art Generator Initiative, which uses art to promote clean energy, calculated the amount of land area that would be required to power the entire world with solar energy. Figure 2 shows the map, with the yellow boxes showing area required to meet the estimated power needs (electricity generation and transportation) for 2030. As an example, it would require land equal to several Texas counties to power the entire United States.

One of the positive (and somewhat fortuitous) features of solar power generation at a utility scale is that the places with the greatest amount of sunlight also tend to be the places with the most available land. The map in Figure 3 shows the average annual insolation in kW-h/m2 per day across the US for a fixed solar photovoltaic system that is aimed to the south and tilted toward the sun at the same angle as the lattitude of the location. It can be seen that the land area that receives the greatest amount of solar energy (>6 kW-h/m2 per day) is the desert Southwest, which includes some of the least inhabited land areas in the US.

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