US President Joe Biden clinched the top role last November on the back of a campaign promise to launch the Clean Energy Revolution in the country, with a chief aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Rystad Energy estimates that the significant utility solar PV installed capacity required to meet the target would occupy around 13,412 square miles of land, equivalent to 0.43% of the total land area in the lower 48 states, or roughly 50 times the size of Austin, Texas.
Land scarcity is often cited as a key barrier to ramping up solar and wind energy capacity in the US, thus undermining the country’s revitalized decarbonization ambitions for the next 30 years. Solar farms, in particular, require a lot of real estate and, unlike wind farms, could take land away from agriculture or other uses.
“Although building all these solar farms is no easy task, with the right choice of unoccupied land and with sufficient investments in infrastructure, it can be done. Not every state is a good fit for large-scale solar plants, but certain southern states could take on larger gigawatts-scale projects than others,” says Felix Tan, senior analyst at Rystad Energy.
Rystad Energy expects assumes a compound annual growth rate of 1.7% in power demand between now and 2050. As such, to achieve Biden’s decarbonization goal and displace all coal-fired plants and large amounts of gas demand, the US would need around 600 gigawatts (GW) of new wind capacity and 1,000 GW of new solar capacity. This could put at risk more than 56 billion cubic feet per day (Bcfd) of future gas demand.
The operational utility solar PV capacity in the US as of February 2021, according to Rystad Energy’s RenewableCube, is only about 48.8 GW, which covers merely 654 square miles of land.
While this analysis aims to give an idea about just how much land is required for solar PV development, the reality of ramping-up massive renewables capacity also poses additional challenges. Upgrading the current transmission network and building new lines will be crucial in order to deliver electricity from remote locations – where solar and wind plants are generally located – to centers of demand with high population density.
The intermittent nature of solar and wind will also require an unprecedented roll-out of storage infrastructure. Energy storage plays a key role in balancing the grid, shifting the peak load to ensure a lower cost of electricity for consumers, as well as providing ancillary services when demand rises to unexpected levels, and generally serving as power backup.
The ramp-up in storage and transmission will only lead to more and larger utility scale solar PV projects in the US. The 600 MW Topaz solar farm in California, which came online in 2013 and 2014, currently ranks as the largest plant in the country. The next four years could see the ceiling smashed as various phased projects become operational, including the Samson Solar Energy Center in Texas and the Edwards & Sanborn Solar project in California – both of which will breach the gigawatt mark.
“Bearing in mind that the Biden Administration is also planning a major expansion of transmission networks across the country, the scene is set for gigawatt-scale solar PV projects to be launched. We expect more gigawatt-scale solar PV projects to follow, including hybrid developments,” Tan concludes.