Solar Needs 32 Acres To Power 1,000 Homes

In a high-profile critique of utility-scale renewable energy, Robert Bryce wrote in the New York Times in 2011 that energy sources like sunlight and wind “(require) vast amounts of natural resources – most notably, land.”

Maybe so. But did you know that “on a life-cycle electricity-output basis – including direct and indirect land transformation – utility-scale PV in the U.S. Southwest requires less land than the average U.S. power plant using surface-mined coal”?

Part of California Valley Solar Ranch (image via SunPower)

Part of California Valley Solar Ranch (image via SunPower)

This is one fun fact the National Renewable Energy Laboratory cites in presenting a new report, “Land-Use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States.” What makes the report especially useful is that unlike previous work on the subject, it’s not strictly theoretical. Although the authors look forward to having an even bigger database of projects to deal with, with 2.1 gigawatts worth of utility PV installed by the third quarter of 2012, the researchers were able to look at well over dozens of projects between 1 and 20 MW in capacity, 32 larger than 20 MW, and 25 concentrating solar projects.

“Having real data from a majority of the solar plants in the United States will help people make proper comparisons and informed decisions,” lead author Sean Ong said in a statement.

According to the researchers, “A large fixed tilt photovoltaic (PV) plant that generates 1 gigawatt-hour 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.”

Put another way, that’s about 1,400 square feet per home, a plot about 37 feet by 37 feet.

“The numbers aren’t good news or bad news,” team member Paul Denholm said. “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 the literature are very close to actual solar land use requirements that we found.”

Given that, the earlier estimate by the NREL that held that  the U.S. could meet all electricity demand by covering 0.6 percent of nation’s total area in PV apparently remains operative.

The full report, “Land-Use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States,” is available online as a 47-page PDF.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.


  • Reply August 21, 2013


    Distributed solar. In many, perhaps most, cases the house roof will suffice.

    • Reply August 21, 2013


      And parking lots at businesses are a perfect fit as well in all but the most densely populated areas.

  • Reply August 21, 2013

    Alec Sevins

    So, these people are acknowledging that solar plants use a lot of land, but unwilling to see it as a big problem. How is that “green” thinking?

    It’s a no-brainer to put solar on the roofs of structures that use the actual electricity vs. grabbing all that open space. The power companies need to accept a decentralized model.

    Wind turbines are going to use up land no matter what, and ought to be reconsidered in general.

    • Reply August 21, 2013


      Clearly some folks have made up their minds, and facts will not dissuade them!

      By the way, wind turbines coexist with farms and ranches helping to insure that farms and ranches continue to be viable. This works to help preserve the open spaces of rural lands that incorporate wind turbines, reducing the chances of future development for higher intensity land uses. And solar power overall, at current conversion efficiencies, requires slightly less land than fossil fuel generation, even when ignoring the 3GW of currently installed distributed solar power. Adding up to somehow this is NOT green thinking, which must be “reconsidered.” Reconsidered with what? Burning more fossil fuels?

      Though I would not encourage solar on land that was not previously developed. It is encouraging to see that less land is required for solar power than fossil fuels and at a vastly lower intensity of land use. Distributed power should and can be considered the priority, with carefully defined utility and landowner incentives. Looking forward to the point when “what should we do with the land where the old inefficient fossil fuel plants were” is a more pressing question.

    • Reply August 22, 2013


      Did you miss this part?

      “Maybe so. But did you know that “on a life-cycle electricity-output
      basis – including direct and indirect land transformation –
      utility-scale PV in the U.S. Southwest requires less land than the
      average U.S. power plant using surface-mined coal”?”

      What this basically says if you didnt understand it was, yes solar uses up land but it uses up less land than comparable land use of a coal power plat fed by surface mined coal.


  • Reply August 21, 2013

    Ronald P Barrett

    Decentralized residential is here and ROI is now in years as opposed to decades. NO Grid and all its problems needed. No line losses either. Power storage however is a current limiting factor. We need to do more energy storage RD&T. NOT spend money on going to Mars! NASA & NREL ya hear!

  • Reply August 22, 2013


    132,100, 000 housing units in the US in 2011.
    That means by my calculations 2, 227, 200 acres of solar
    i think that would be about 3,000 square miles
    a tract of land 55 by 55 miles.
    sorry no night time tv folks

    wonder what the effect on the environment of 3,000 square miles covered by solar panels. suspect it would be very benign.

  • Reply August 25, 2013


    If they placed the solar on the house they would have 32 acres to build more homes

  • Reply August 26, 2013


    I don’t know why solar power is not more encouraged!


  • Reply August 26, 2013

    West Ridge Fine Homes

    I think there are easier ways to utilize solar power

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