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Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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The Finite Factor Standing In The Way Of The Renewable Revolution

  • The global renewable revolution is facing a major roadblock.
  • As the world continues to grow, there may not be enough land to meet the food and energy needs of the population. 
  • For less territorially fortunate countries, the problem may be insurmountable.

Earlier this year, now former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country could become the Saudi Arabia of wind. In the United States, just last week, the House of Representatives passed the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act that will provide a huge financial push for more wind and solar. In Europe, Brussels is shortening approval procedures for renewables. And in China, they're out of land for growing food.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that a series of what it called extreme events, such as floods and droughts, had affected crops in the world's wind and solar investment and capacity leader. This, in turn, had presented the authorities with a choice between continuing to use arable land for wind and solar, or using it for food.

Choosing between having food or having energy is not one that many people in the world would be comfortable with, especially people in the UK, the U.S. and Europe. The issue of renewables' land footprint does not tend to get much, if any, attention from the media, which is why such a choice has not been considered at all. And yet some have researched it.

In 2013, a British researcher, David J.C. McKay, wrote a paper in which he calculated energy use per capita for several countries and compared it with the average energy density of solar panels and wind turbines, and—importantly—with population density.

It turned out that in the UK, people consumed an average of 1.25 Watts of electricity per square meter. Unfortunately, McKay also found that the average energy density of solar and wind farms was roughly the same. This meant that in a hypothetical and highly desirable scenario of Britain generating all its power from wind and solar, it would require a twofold increase in its own territory to have space to install the turbines and the panels.

"In a decarbonized world that is renewable-powered, the land area required to maintain today's British energy consumption would have to be similar to the area of Britain," McKay himself concluded.

The paper might have sounded fantastical were it not for the recent events unfolding in China. According to the Bloomberg report, some authorities are already taking action against more wind and solar developments, with at least one solar project getting partially dismantled for alleged illegal construction and others being scrutinized a lot more closely.

Indeed, solar is the bigger offender as far s land footprints go. Wind farms in wheat or sunflower fields are a usual sight in some parts of the world. For solar, the fields would have to be removed. And now, researchers are working on ways to solve the conundrum.

Agrivoltaic is one approach to dealing with solar's land footprint. As the name suggests, it combines agriculture with photovoltaics by installing the panels on arable land in such a way as to keep it arable. The approach, however, is not universal because it basically relies on crops that do not need much sunlight, which is a minority.

Experiments are being done with the angle at which panels are installed in a bid to reduce the space they occupy while still absorbing sufficient irradiation to produce decent amounts of electricity while the sun shines.

Yale Environment 360 reported recently on the various approaches to reducing the footprint of solar energy, including agrivoltaics, mounting the panels directly on the ground in deserts to increase production, and mounting the panels almost vertically to save land.

The reason that the land problem comes into the spotlight now is the renewed push for even faster rollout of renewables amid the current energy crunch gripping Europe and spreading across the world as Europe suddenly becomes a huge LNG supplier, pushing prices to all-time highs.

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According to the International Energy Agency's Net Zero by 2050 roadmap that the agency published last year, we would need to build 630 GW of new solar capacity every year until 2050 to hit net-zero targets. This amount is four times greater than the record solar installations seen in 2020, the Yale Environment 360 article noted, and land is finite.

In all fairness, land is not the only finite component necessary for this massive buildout of solar power, but it is the most important one because, as the situation in China has reminded us, land is used to grow food. One could argue in favor of things like hydroponics and urban gardening, but it could not be a serious argument—it's all about scale, and to have crop-growing at a scale ensuring adequate food supply for any given population, you need land.

For China, which is one of few countries with abundant land resources, as it were, part of the solution seems to be moving wind and solar projects to more remote areas. But this, as the Bloomberg report noted, would lead to more challenges, namely getting the electricity from those remote areas to the cities that need it. In other words, wind and solar power will very likely become costlier because of the investments in new transmission lines that would need to be made.

For less territorially fortunate countries, however, the problem may be insurmountable for the simple reason that you cannot generate more land. Offshore wind is obviously a solution for wind, and northern Europe is betting very big on offshore wind. But offshore solar, sadly, won't work, not in the northern seas of the densely populated continent.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • DoRight Deikins on August 16 2022 said:
    Thank you, Irina, for an excellent article. The information provided by David McKay's paper is especially relevant, though a bit outdated.

    Agrivoltaics is certainly a possibility, even in Great Britain. For instance one of the major 'crops' of the British Isles (forgive me for including you in the British Isles, dear Ireland) is sheep production. Since sheep seem to love shade, at a proper density, solar panels could supply both income for the farmer and a slightly reduced income from the sheep. (Many grasses reach a maximum production long before they are limited by lack of sunlight, especially during the summer.) During the winter, the panels could be oriented to allow maximum solar insolation to reach the grass, since this is the time of very limited usefulness for the panel in any circumstances.

    «And in China, they're out of land for growing food.» You don't say? China has been out of land for growing food for years (centuries?). Rapid urbanization and deforestation have probably balanced out the dams and water control projects they have done over the years to control their, at times, bountiful rainfall. Why do you think there are so many 'over-seas' Chinese (e.g. Chinese restaurants in practically every town on this planet)? They have always had a population/food problem. But the problems are not insurmountable. They have many hills where solar power could be placed; the problem would be protecting the erosion of the soil. And the water collected on those panels could easily be pumped to storage at the top of those hills (small mountains).

    Switzerland has done a good job, as always IMO, with their solar installations. Many are located on south facing mountain faces and spaced sufficiently to be all but invisible. Yet they still get nearly 9% of their energy production from them (at least on 2022/8/16).
  • Phil Nelson on August 17 2022 said:
    Thank you Irena for your article. The IEA has cast some incredibly large numbers to get to net zero. Besides land for the panels (turbines too) what about land for the batteries needed for backup. And what about land for the landfilling of the spent junk that doesn't recycle.

    How much fossil fuel is needed to get raw materials and energy to build the finished panels and turbines?

    I think thorium based nuclear energy using small modular liquid fluoride thorium reactors such as the Oak Ridge Labs built in the 1950's are a much more promising solution to the net zero goal. The Chinese have adopted the technology from us and are committed to nuclear power.

    For anyone interested in some nuclear literacy about thorium I suggest looking at energyfromthorium.com and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor. There are more and more thorium spots on YouTube that are informative. Thorium has a number of compelling attributes that suggest its use over uranium

    The director of ORNL (Oak Ridge) was dismissed for advocating for thorium as the best and safest route. We were in a cold war race for nuclear weapons that thorium wouldn't support but uranium would. Unfortunately we as a country haven't looked back since then.

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