Building out solar and wind power generation capacity at the scale and pace needed to meet global climate pledges will require some serious problem-solving. There are a handful of key challenges facing renewable scaling, the three most prominent of which are aging and unsuitable power grids, arduous and lengthy permitting processes, and securing enough land to build utility-scale solar and wind farms.
This last one is a doozy. “Utility-scale solar and wind farms require at least ten times as much space per unit of power as coal- or natural gas–fired power plants, including the land used to produce and transport the fossil fuels,” states a 2022 insight report from strategy & management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “Wind turbines are often placed half a mile apart, while large solar farms span thousands of acres.” And climate goals will require a whole lot of those kinds of farms, presenting serious land-use quandaries in a world with increasingly less undeveloped land to go around.
On a global scale, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that we will have to add 630 gigawatts of new solar power and 390 gigawatts of new wind power worldwide each and every year by 2030 in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That's a whopping four times the growth rate for solar and wind capacity in 2020. “For solar power, it amounts to building the world’s largest current solar farm nearly every day,” reports Yale Environment 360.
In the United States, 700,000 acres will need to be dedicated to solar power alone in order to meet the Biden administration’s goal of powering the domestic grid with 100% clean electricity by 2035. And that will have to be accompanied by a massive buildout of the grid, which will have to double in size by 2035. Meeting those goals will likely require the use of huge swaths of government land, but at present, only about 34,000 acres of land owned by the United States Bureau of Land Management is used for solar. But that number is about to change dramatically.
A new BLM plan to deploy and scale up solar power in the U.S. southwest has dictated that a staggering 22 million acres of land should be made available for solar panels and associated solar energy infrastructure. That’s about the size of Maine, and it’s even bigger than Scotland. The plan is being rolled out amongst a particularly favorable political climate as Biden’s massive solar subsidies prop up the industry and inspire a new spate of solar investing.
Indeed, utility-scale solar generation is on track to expand by a whopping 75% by next year compared to last, with 79,000 megawatts of new capacity additions. What’s more, the BLM is already moving forward with a handful of major solar projects. The largest of these will take up 5,500 acres in Nevada and will have enough clean energy generation capacity to power more than 200,000 homes.
Development of this massive scale, however, doesn’t come without its drawbacks. While converting massive tracts of land to clean energy production is necessary to keep the climate within manageable bounds without compromising our energy needs and economic development capabilities, these megaprojects are faced by some skeptics on both sides of the aisle.
Many of the states where these huge projects will be built are deeply red areas that don’t care for the idea of huge federal clean energy projects, and particularly not those in their backyard. And they’re already causing a royal pain in the neck for existing projects through aggressive litigation and other protest strategies. What’s more, there’s concern that using so much land for energy generation will compete with land use for growing food – a need which also continues to expand along with the global population. Others argue that this land should be left wild, and that the development of such huge tracts in the desert southwest threatens vulnerable species such as the desert tortoise.
Finding solutions that balance our ecological, energy, and food needs is as necessary as it is complex. Finding mixed land-use solutions will be key, as will continued technological advancements that allow us to do more with less. The challenge is enormous – but what’s at stake for the planet is bigger.
By Haley Zaremgba for Oilprice.com
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