Solar and wind electric: A matter of land area?

Solar photovoltaic electricity farm (Source: BING)

SALEM, Ore., Feb. 24, 2014 — The Obama Administration has pushed solar and wind power as the preferred renewable energy replacements for fossil fuel electricity. Will these be adequate for the job?

The administration must think so. It has poured tens of billions of dollars into research, development and deployment of solar and wind energy in large-scale commercial electric power projects.

To show off the administration’s solar power investments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy toured the William R. Sinkin Centennial Solar Farms outside San Antonio, Texas on February 12, 2014.

Sinkin is a new state-of-the-art 20 megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic facility occupying 200 acres of land. McCarthy toured it with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and other dignitaries.

Supporting state and local efforts to address the effects of climate change – such as more frequent and severe extreme weather – is an important part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan
EPA Press Release,  William R. Sinkin solar farm, 2/12/2014

Solar and wind are vital cogs in the President’s Climate Action Plan to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the United States will consume 4.086 billion megawatt-hours of electricity in 2014. That’s huge, the equivalent of 121,000 Sinkin-sized solar farms.

Can solar and wind power become the mainstay of electricity production in the United States? Even overcoming their other disadvantageous, it’s a question of land area!

Capacity Factors


Understanding capacity factors is key to understanding electricity production in the United States. It’s crucial when talking about both solar and wind power.

Typically, an electric power plant is described by its generating capacity, usually expressed in megawatts (MW). Sinkin, for example, is described as a 20 MW solar farm.

However, generating capacity isn’t always an accurate measurement of a plant’s true electricity production. No power plant delivers 100 percent of its generating capacity. It delivers less. How much less depends on the energy source.

Nuclear power plants are the most efficient. They run at close to their rated generating capacity 24 hours a day all year long. For example, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station near Phoenix, Arizona operates at 90 percent of its rated capacity.

Palo Verde is the largest electric power plant in the United States. It has 3,875 MW capacity and delivers 30,584 gigawatt-hours (GWh)/year when operating at 2013’s measured 90.1 percent capacity factor.

Solar and wind, on the other hand, both have exceptionally low capacity factors. According to the EIA, solar photovoltaic operated at only 19.4 percent of capacity in 2013. Wind operated at 32.3 percent. Solar thermal operated at just 17.8 percent.

Of course, solar produces only when the sun shines and wind only with a blowing breeze.

The Solar solution

The Sinkin solar photovoltaic (PV) farm requires 10 acres of land area for each megawatt of electric generating capacity. Its 200 acres occupies 0.31 square miles split between two plots.

A Sinkin-like solar PV farm, at a capacity factor of 19.4 percent, would have to have a whopping 18,043 MW of rated capacity to produce the same amount of usable electricity as the Palo Verde nuclear plant.

Palo Verde occupies 6.25 square miles. Sinkin would need 282 square miles of solar panels on a single plot of land to match Palo Verde’s output. That’s about the size of New York City.

To produce all the electricity in the United States with solar photovoltaic panels would require a land area of 37,790 square miles. That is about one third the size of the state of Arizona. Solar thermal would require more.

The Obama Administration has opened up public lands to solar and wind power. Solar PV would require 14 percent of all the BLM managed lands in the continental United States to meet current U.S. electricity needs.

The Wind Solution


Shepherd's Flat Wind Farm near Arlington, Oregon (Source: Wikipedia)
Shepherds Flat Wind Farm near Arlington, Oregon (Source: Wikipedia)

Wind power needs even more land than solar for its massive 350 foot tall windmills.

The 845 MW capacity Shepherds Flat Wind Farm on the banks of the Columbia River near Arlington, Oregon was the largest in the world when it opened in late 2012.

It has 338 windmills on two large plots of ranch land occupying 30 square miles in two counties.

Wind has a higher capacity factor than solar, but takes up more space. To match Palo Verde’s usable electric output, Shepherds Flat would need 460 square miles. That’s nearly the size of Los Angeles.

To produce all the electricity in the United States it would take up half the state of Arizona, over 22 percent of all existing public BLM lands in the continental United States.


Solar and wind have numerous important physical limitations:

  • Non-scalable. They can’t be turned on or off to adjust to peak electric demand.
  • Inefficient. They have exceptionally low capacity factors. They are probably operating near their theoretical limits now.
  • Siting. Must be built where conditions are suitable, not necessarily where electricity is needed.
  • Land. Require vast land areas to produce significant amounts of electricity.

Land area is a serious obstacle to both solar and wind power. Most people just assume there is enough. There likely isn’t enough suitable land in the continental United States for them to come close to current electric needs, let alone future ones. If electric cars catch on consumption will skyrocket.

Wind and solar provide less than five percent of all electricity in the United States, despite 10s of billions in government subsidies. Subsidies can’t be sustained forever.

The Administration talks the talk of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. Solar and wind economics will soon force government to walk the walk. Solar and wind disadvantageous prevent their adoption as the primary source of electricity in the United States.

EIA data suggest that lower-cost, low emission natural gas and nuclear are the more viable energy solutions for electricity over the next 25+ years.

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  • SolarEyes

    100% WIND WATER and Solar for all purposes is possible and INEVITABLE; you CANNOT burn all the carbon, and you won’t. 60% wind, mostly offshore (Offshore wind can have 40-55% capacity factor); doesn’t need land, no noise or shadow, a visual impact the size of a white toothpick at arms length, less impact on birds. It’s more expensive but will come down and easily beat fossil, which are currently incredible miscalculated at their true cost. Farm and graze land can host the less expensive wind while Offshore ramps up. A third of solar can go on roofs, prioritizing the rest on the ground first on used degraded land, avoiding virgin land. EV’s and hydrolytic combustion for transport. Truely good news!!! 2014 will to see the start of a major shifts of investment from fossil fuels towards Wind, water and sun!!!

    • Steve Davidson

      Your point that offshore wind having a higher capacity factor is well made.

      Unfortunately, according to the EIA, offshore wind is forecast to still be the 2nd most expensive electricity there is at $221.5/MWh in 2018. By comparison, natural gas advanced cycle is forecast to cost $69/MWh. That is a HUGE difference.

      It is likely that economics will slow acceptance of offshore wind for a long time to come.

      Renewables like wind, solar and hydrogen should be developed asap but, like it or not, natural gas is the most viable electricity solution to replace coal through at least 2040.

      • SolarEyes

        Thanks Steve. The EIA is an important authority, but they have consistently underestimated market growth and cost reduction of wind and solar; so that should be taken into consideration in our forecast.

        Importantly, there is 3 times the amount of carbon in know reserves of private companies than there is allowed to be burned by international agreements on a carbon budget for keeping global average temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius rise. This will make the decision to legislate supportive policy inevitable as the science is studied more by the insurance and finance sectors (since they pretty much pay for the politicians).

        Utilities and governments will divest leaving the collapsing fossil fuel industry as an unprecedented economic bubble. The order of energy sector collapse in the US may be coal & gas (2-5 years), bio-fuel (10 years), oil (16 years), nuke (20 years), and then even hydro (50 years) as we master storage of solar and wind derived power.

        2014 will be a hall mark year for risk assessment of carbon assets. 2014-2020 will see escalating divestment from fossil fuels.

        Regarding offshore pricing, here’s a recent article predicting 13 cents/ kWh by 2020.

        The next five years will be very disruptive. Who would’ve thought!
        Clean, affordable energy with infinite fuel supplies that cannot be
        dominated and therefor eliminate that risk for conflict, as well as reduce conflict surrounding the inequity pollutants effects downstream.

        Thanks for engaging in this discussion and important debate.

        • SolarEyes

          UPDATE. Norway is going to shake the market through fossil fuel divestment. This will move $7Tn annual investment from dirty to clean energy! 2014 watershed year of transition.

          • Steve Davidson

            You are jumping the gun a bit… according to the Financial Times…
            Norway hasn’t decided anything. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is setting up an “expert group” to study whether or not to stop investing into fossil fuels through its $840B oil fund. That is 8.4% of the entire fund assets.

            It’s a long road from thinking about divesting to actually doing it.

            In the long term, you are right. Alternatives to fossil must and will
            eventually replace it, but that is still quite a long way in
            the future. In the meantime, wind and solar investment in the United
            States in the near term is drying up as government subsidies supporting them are drying up, according to EIA stats.

            Wind and solar will not catch on and prosper until they can support themselves and find the necessary space to build.

            Offshore wind has the space but is far from being economically feasible. EIA estimates its levelized cost at $221/Mwh in 2018. The levelized cost of natural gas at that time is $69/Mwh. Until offshore wind overcomes that cost difference nobody is gonna divest from fossil fuels.

            For now, though, there is no economically viable alternative to fossils.

          • Steve Davidson

            It’s irritating that your last two comments require approval and I’m not authorized to approve them, otherwise I would so they would show up…

            Item 1-
            Again, solareyes, as I said above… the Norway Sovereign Wealth Fund hasn’t decided anything but to set up a study committee. Tell me when they make a decision.

            Item 2-
            Even at $166/mWh it is still about $100/mWh more expensive than advance natural gas. That is NOT competitive.

            Item 3-
            I checked out the 50 Plans for 50 states for 2050 projections for some states I’m familiar with…
            Where did these fairytale projections come from??

            It begs the question:
            What do you get when you mix a scientist, an actor, a banker and a filmmaker? (the originators of the 50 plans)
            Ans: Nonsense!

            I think WordPress believes your comment is spam because it contains three links. I’ll reproduce it below without the links, so my above responses make sense.

            Hi Steve,

            Three links below show:
            -Norway is shifting
            -We can afford it
            -There’s sufficient space

            Move by Norway Sovereign Wealth Fund to invest in renewables
            could have ‘global impact’
            Link to World Wildlife Fund

            Strategy for $166/mWh for Offshore wind by 2020
            Link to Google

            100% WWS, 50 Plans for 50 States (includes jobs est.):
            Link to “thesolutionsproject” it’s a .org

        • Steve Davidson

          You are correct, the EIA doesn’t predict the future as right as they might. They do better than the CBO, but who doesn’t? 😉

          You are correct, when push comes to shove, economics will be the driving force behind all future energy policy.

          The trend has already started. Canada dropped out of Kyoto to develop its energy resources. Russia and China both say they will not sign onto to Kyoto II. Japan turned its legal Kyoto commitment into a future goal.

          Australia voted out their government last year because of the harsh carbon tax it imposed in 2012.

          Germany is $140 billion in hock to green energy subsidies. It closed its nuke plants and Its solar power industry produces so little power that Germany is going back to dirty coal to produce enough electricity to meet its needs!

          Even the EU is backing off on Kyoto… all for economic reasons.

          Bottom line, renewables have a long, LONG way to go to become major players in global energy.

          Both the EIA and the IEA forecast that fossil fuels will still supply around 80% if the world’s energy in the year 2040.

          That is today’s reality. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

    • eric

      my family has 100 acres of land near keota, CO. they have that fracking goin on but not really producing much. could you host wind turbines on it do you know?

      • SolarEyes

        Hi Eric I’m sorry for the slow response I work in solar and know only a little about wind. maybe call companies in that area, talk to other folks with turbines on their land, best of luck

  • Roland

    Why is it that most of these nuclear proponents always forget about the 1000 square miles that was taken out of use for any reason for thousands of years by the Chernobl accident, and always forget that land use at a wind farm is mostly unaffected, about two or three acres per turbine (2 MW these days).

    The real problem is that nuclear power is too expensive – more expensive than wind. WIth the lower prices for electricity being received these days by producers, the nuclear plants are having a hard time being profitable, even with the government subsidies. A few have been forced to close down because of this. On the other hand Bloomberg, in a financial report this winter, about wind power, says that even without the government production tax credit, wind power is competitive, or in some places cheaper than, coal or gas generation.

    Another problem with nuclear, or fossil fuel for that matter, is that they require large amounts of water for cooling. That can be a problem in a lot of areas. Of course we wouldn’t expect the people living near the Palo Verde plant to be at all familiar with water shortages of any type, would we?

    • Steve Davidson

      Nuclear is mentioned in this article only for the purpose of illustrating how much land area that wind and solar facilities require to produce the same output.

      Nuclear power is inherently more dangerous then other energy sources and it still has the problem that there is no permanent storage facility for spent fuel.

      For the record, I did a cross-comparison between the cost of Shepherd’s Flat and the new nuclear plant in Georgia that the Obama Administration just gave a large loan guarantee. The nuke plant is supposed to cost $14B. The equivalent in Shepherds Flat wind farms would cost $16B

      Palo Verde uses recycled waste water for cooling.

  • Good comparison on land requirement for various energy options. But for Nuclear power plant large area has to be kept vacant from the plant site for safety.
    In the Wind farm the area can be utilised for short height agricultural plants.
    Efficiency wise and from maintenance point of view Wind has more advantage. With rapid advancement in Offshore wind technology,it is going to be dominant in the near future.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India