Solar PV Can Supply 100% Electricity Needs With Less Than 1% Land
“Renewable energy requires land. But just how much?” This is the opening question of WWF’s report Solar PV Atlas: solar power in harmony with nature, released this month in connection with the World Future Energy Summit that took place in Abu Dhabi. The report was prepared by WWF together with 3TIER, Fresh Generation, and First Solar, a global provider of solar photovoltaic systems using advanced thin film modules.
The question raises concerns about renewable energy and invites readers to take a second hard look at them, as with the common perception that solar energy in particular needs substantial amount of land to be able to meet peak energy demands. The report challenges the misconception by showing that:
“…even if all electricity is to be generated through renewable energy (RE) sources, and with solar photovoltaics (PV) alone, it would take up only an insignificant amount of total land area, contrary to common perception.” - WWF
To showcase this assertion, the report presents seven cases involving six countries and one region where 100% of projected electricity demands by 2050 could be generated using solar photovoltaics (PV) alone, on less than 1% of the country’s total land mass.
These countries are Indonesia, Mexico, Madagascar, Morocco, Turkey, South Africa, and the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The regions represent a range of geographies and natural resources to show that solar photovotaics could be utilized in different natural environments. Demographics, economies, and political structures are taken as well in consideration in using solar PV to supply different levels of peak energy demands.
Each region receives different but sufficient average levels of sunshine, exhibiting immense potential for utilization and development of a commercially viable and reliable technology as solar PV. Even in regions with densely populated areas and protected conservation zones competing for limited space like Madagascar, economically viable solar PV utilization could happen. Developments like new ground-mounted solar PV systems make this possible.
Indonesia gets 85% of its electricity supply from coal, oil, and natural gas power plants. Solar PV Atlas projects that 0.27% of the country’s land (around 725 square kilometers) would be needed to host solar PV generation, and that this would be enough to meet 100 percent of Indonesia’s projected electricity needs by 2050. This is assuming that Indonesia’s population is consuming the projected global average electricity consumption for 2050, currently 6.5 times greater than the per capita consumption.
Madagascar has 115 small and mid-sized power plants at present, but 80% of the country’s population lack electricity access. 93% of the rural population do not have access to electricity and rely on kerosene and battery operated devices for lighting and other needs. The report calculates that a mere 4.5 sq km of solar panels would be required to meet the country’s total current electricity generation. Barely visible on the report’s solar map for Madagascar, 0.13% of the country’s land is needed to host solar PV to meet 100% of its projected global average electricity consumption for 2050, currently 60 times greater than the per capita consumption.
Madhya Pradesh, India is the second largest state in the country according to size. The Indian state had a total installed capacity of 8.4 GW in 2011, owned by the government and private producers. It sourced 84% of its electrical generation from coal in 2011 to 2012, with hydro electric and other sources supplying the rest. Solar PV Atlas calculates that 0.75% of Madhya Pradesh’s land would host enough solar PV to meet its projected global average electricity consumption for 2050, currently 5 times greater than the per capita consumption.
Mexico Ninety-nine per cent of Mexico’s population have access to electricity. In 2011, Mexico sourced 42.6 % of its electricity generation from gas, 21.6% from heavy oil, 13.5% from hydro power, 14% from coal, and the rest from nuclear, geothermal/wind, and diesel. The report calculates that just 0.11% of Mexico’s land would be needed to host solar PV generation to meet 100% of Mexico’s projected electricity demands in 2050.
Morocco is the largest energy importer in northern Africa, with 97% of its energy imported. Based on 2010 data, it sourced its electricity generation from coal (34%), heavy fuel oil (24%), hydro (33%), wind, and natural gas. Its heavy energy dependence makes Morocco susceptible to price fluctuations and energy supply disruptions. Yet the report shows that merely 0.17% of its land would be needed to host solar PV generation to meet the imported energy dependent country’s projected electricity’s needs in 2050.
South Africa With about three-quarters of South Africa’s approximately 50.6 million people having access to electricity, the country relies heavily on its large coal supply to meet energy demands. In 2010, South Africa sourced 90% of its electricity generation from coal, and the remaining 10% split evenly between nuclear and hydropower sources. The Solar PV Atlas report calculates that less than a tenth of one percent (0.09%) of South Africa’s land would be needed to host solar PV to meet 1005 of its projected electricity needs in 2050.
Turkey relies heavily on imported energy sources, reaching 71% in 2011. It sources its electricity generation from natural gas (43.8%), coal (26.6%), hydropower (24%), wind, geothernal, and others based on 2009 data. Its electricity demand grew over 50% in less than a decade, compared to the global average of just 22%. Solar PV Atlas calculates it would take just 0.21% of Turkey’s land to host solar PV that would meet 1005 of its projected electricity needs in 2050.
The report states that solar PV only provides 0.01 percent of total global electricity generation, however the technology is seeing an average annual growth of over 40% since 2000. While issues like grid integration, balancing, and storage need to be addressed to maximize renewable energy benefits, solar PV still has the potential for long-term growth in virtually all world regions both in the present and the future.
The report aims to show that well-planned solar PV technology will neither be in conflict with conservation goals nor result in dilemmas requiring countries to choose between solar energy benefits and space for humans and nature. Instead, solar photovoltaics should be seen as a more environmentally friendly, low greenhouse gas and metal emission, and economically viable replacement for traditional power grids with their associated disadvantages and outdated technology.
Solar Power PV Atlas supports WWF’s vision of a 100% renewable energy future by 2050, and presents potential avenues on how the sustainable future can be achieved.
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