A team of experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) towards the Department of Energy gathered data from installed or currently under construction solar facilities, to produce a comprehensive list of key land use requirements for solar power plants in the U.S.
In their report entitled “Land-use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States”, the authors Sean Ong, Clinton Campbell, Robert Margolis, Paul Denholm and Garvin Heath provide information on land availability and recommendations for future installations, based on a compilation of actual land use numbers from 72% of the existing solar plants.
The authors established that the land required for solar panels within a 1 gigawatt-hour per year fixed tilt photovoltaic plant is around 2.8 acres (1.13 ha). A single-axis photovolatic system takes up on average 3.8 acres (1.54 ha) of land, if the unused space between the panels is considered. For solar collectors, Ong and his team estimated that the needed land adds to 3.5 acres (1.41 ha), which also includes the unused space.
When compared with the average coal power plant, the numbers are much lower. Interestingly, previous estimates have never been based on real data, but rather on calculations. Even the NREL themselves released a number of reports over the past few years, estimating land-use needs for wind and solar, but these have never been based on large data sets.
The authors emphasized on the fact that the reason for releasing the report is not to maintain the heated debate over comparative land needs for various power plants. On the contrary, the report is meant to show the benefits of solar and provide real values that can be cited and will aid decision making in the next few decades.