New research shows that utility-scale solar power is more efficient today than it was a decade back in terms of how much land it uses.
The paper, by lead author Mark Bolinger of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is timely because utility-scale solar is a big part of plans to make a transition to carbon-free electricity, and because there have been few recent studies about solar’s efficiency in land use.
“It just seems a little bit odd to still be relying on data that was almost a decade out of date,” Bolinger told me.
He noticed a 40 percent increase in the average generating capacity per acre for solar panels between 2011 & 2019. This includes both “tracking” solar systems, in which the panels shift during the day to follow the sun, and “fixed-tilt” systems, which are stationary. The paper was published in IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics.
To put it in a more understandable context, a 100-megawatt tracking sunr array would have required approximately 600 acres in 2011, but would have needed only about 420 acres in 2019, based upon median figures.
That’s a huge shift, which means that the massive deployment of utility-scale solar that is likely to happen in the coming decades will need less land than previously thought.
The main reason is that solar panel efficiency has improved. This means that solar arrays can produce tens to thousands of times more electricity, which leads to large gains. The algorithms that control the tracking systems are now more adept at following the sun.
The paper helps to quantify regional differences in solar systems. We already know that a Southern California solar array can generate more electricity per annum than one in Michigan or Minnesota. However, the paper shows that tracking systems can help reduce the disadvantages of living in a northern climate.
The paper defines “utility-scale solar” as ground-mounted systems of at least 5 megawatts.
I’ve known Bolinger for years as one of the authors of the Lawrence Berkeley lab’s exhaustive annual reports on utility-scale solar and utility-scale wind.
He discovered that solar projects are now more efficient over the past few years. He also noticed that researchers continued to cite older studies on solar land use that didn’t reflect the latest gains.
A team from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory wrote a 2013 study that is often cited. Although this may seem like a recent study, the solar industry made many strides in the years that followed.
Bolinger collected electricity generation data as well as satellite images for more than 700 projects in order to conduct his study.
He had some help. His coauthor was Greta Bolinger. Greta is his daughter and a Bowdoin College undergraduate.
“She took a term off and was looking for some things to do,” he said. “She did a lot of the legwork.”
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This paper touches on a controversial subject: The energy transition will require a lot of land in rural areas for solar and wind power. For example, Princeton University’s “Net-Zero America” report has a scenario in which the United States would increase its solar power capacity by about 15-fold by 2050. The U.S. Department of Energy’s “Solar Futures Study” said that solar could account for as much as 45 percent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, up from the low single digits today.
Rural residents are already concerned by the impact of renewable energy on the character of their localities, and some local governments are trying to block its development.
Partly in response to those concerns, researchers and environmental advocates are working on so-called “agrivoltaics,” which is an exploration of the ways that land being used for solar arrays can also be used for agriculture.
Bolinger doesn’t expect his paper to make much of a difference in local debates, which have to do with specific proposals rather than big-picture issues. Bolinger hopes that his research will be influential and help others to understand the market reality of how much power is possible on an acre.
His main lesson, which is now loudly and clearly to me, is that estimates about the amount of land required for solar are a moving target.
You can also find other stories about the energy transition in this week’s news:
California Net Metering Case – Clear StakesAnalysts are pointing out that the plan’s effects would be more detrimental to the industry than the California regulators seem to admit. This week, the market research firm Wood Mackenzie issued a report that says the California plan will cut the state’s rooftop solar market in half by 2024 compared to what it would have been otherwise. This proposal would be disastrous for rooftop solar businesses and discourage homeowners from adding solar to their homes. The plan was originally scheduled to be voted on by California Public Utilities Commission Jan. 27, but regulators have now pulled it from their schedule and aren’t saying how long it may take, according to Teri Sforza, Southern California News Group. The Governor is one of the factors that has caused the panel to pause. Gavin Newsom, who appoints the panel’s members, has said he thinks changes need to be made to the plan. One option is for a member of the commission to propose an alternative, but that hasn’t happened yet.
General Motors chooses Michigan for $7 billion EV InvestmentGeneral Motors has announced that it will build a battery facility near Lansing, Michigan. It will also expand the production of electric trucks at its Lake Orion, Michigan plant. Paula Gardner reports on Bridge Michigan that the company spent $7 billion. GM considered a number of locations but ultimately chose to stay close to its Detroit headquarters.
Biden Administration aims to update efficiency rules for manufactured housing:In response to a court order the Biden administration proposes new efficiency standards in manufactured homes. The new rules would save consumers’ money on energy costs, but the proposal also has inspired some blowback from critics who warn of high costs, as Tik Root reports for The Washington Post.
California Utility Proposes a Large Investment in Battery Storage Pacific Gas & Electric said this week that it is proposing nine battery storage projects with a total capacity of 1,600 megawatts. The lithium-ion batteries systems could store up to four hours. PG&E is making the proposal in response to a 2021 order from state regulators requiring utilities to procure 11,500 megawatts of new electricity resources to replace power plants that will soon be closing, including Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, as Kavya Balaraman reports for Utility Dive. This proposal generates 1,600 megawatts, which is more than all of the energy storage that was built in the United States in any given year prior to 2021.
Airstream Concept Vehicle Could Enable Off Grid LivingThor Industries, the recreational vehicle manufacturer that owns the iconic Airstream brand of travel trailers has announced that it is developing a prototype RV. It would use a pair electric motors to reduce the strain on the vehicle towing it. The trailer would also be able to run off the grid for up two weeks. The Airstream eStream idea would extend the towing vehicle’s range. This would be especially useful for EVs. Greg Fink reports that the trailer would come with a battery that can store 80 kilowatt-hours worth of electricity and rooftop solar panel to power it. Car and Driver.
Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly bulletin of news and analysis about the energy transition. Send news tips and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source: Inside Climate News