Solar and Wind Farms Look Good on Paper, but Geez They Take up a Lot of Land

Solar and Wind Farms Look Good on Paper, but Geez They Take up a Lot of Land
Darlington Point Solar Farm. Image: Edify Energy

The other day, when I was doomscrolling on Twitter (a completely normal thing to do at the moment), I stumbled upon a map that really struck me. One that really stood out and flicked something in my brain, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Isn’t that such an amazing map? Overlaying solar and wind potential with the global human population as of 2018 (yes, this map is from 2018, I don’t know how it appeared on my Twitter in 2022)?

Why bring this up in 2022?

Well, this map tends to hold up two years on, presenting similar potential zones to those highlighted by the Global Wind Atlas and the Global Solar Atlas.

From the map, it’s quite easy to deduce that there are thousands of kilometres of “ideal land” where wind and solar could be implemented to power our cities. In Australia, as you can see, the country is covered in what seems to be solar potential, along with a fair amount of wind potential, which should surprise nobody.

If you have the time, Peter Zeihan’s thread on the topic is well worth the read. In it, he discusses the advantages of wind over solar. Because Australia seems to have solar and wind potential in abundance, I’ve reached out for Zeihan’s thoughts on Australia’s approach to renewables.

Of course, given our landmass mixed with our considerably low population, it’s easy to say that Australia is perfect for renewables, but I think there’s a lot more to consider than optimal area use. Let’s talk land, because while we have a lot of it, we’d need to use a lot of it to completely switch to renewables.

How much land do wind and solar need?

It makes sense when you think about it, but wind and solar need a LOT of land to work effectively. Fields and fields of wind turbines and solar panels need to be huge to meet power demand… But how much land would we actually need?

I’d like for you to imagine how much of Australia is actually serviceable with solar and wind energy. As in, what location is the perfect distance from a city to be able to service with power, while also being close enough to be serviced by a team quickly if something goes wrong.

Moreover, consider how much power the average Australian household needs. Let’s break down Sydney’s solar energy needs if it wanted to go 100 per cent for residential energy.

Finder reports that the average daily power use per Sydney customer is about 10.1kW. On average, it takes three to four solar panels to make a 1kW system, however, solar panels produce about three to four times their energy rating per day on average (weather conditions can impact on this). As reported by Canstar Blue, a 1kW system produces an average of 3.9kWh per day (thanks for reaching out about this, @alexisthymiac!).

Additionally, considering that Sydney has a population of about 5 million people (an average 2.4 people per household), you can probably imagine it taking hundreds of football fields worth of space for Sydney solar alone.

With systems operating ideally, we can expect to need about 21 million panels for Sydney, about four to six panels per person (about 10 to 12 per average household).

Combined with the average solar panel size of 1.70 metres squared, we get a solar land requirement of about 35 square kilometres for Sydney households alone. Keep in mind that this is a rough calculation as an example and that I’m very aware of rooftop solar, but we’re talking about powering Australia’s biggest city here based on household averages (forgetting businesses, infrastructure and so on).

If there’s something wrong with our maths, give us a hoot. Shoutout to my Dad who helped me work this one out, journalists are famously bad at maths.

This tends to align with similar calculations:

For example, a city with an average power consumption of 11,000,000 kWh per day would require roughly 11 million solar panels. That much solar panels would require 19 square kilometres or 4,600 acres for installation.

If you’re interested, the Darlington Point Solar Farm (the image if you scroll up) is 10 square kilometres in size. Wind isn’t free from land issues itself, considering that it takes up more of it.

But it isn’t just space

We also have to keep in mind all the times when the sun isn’t shining, and have to think about energy storage. For additional context, in 2021, renewables accounted for 32.5 per cent of Australia’s total energy generation, according to the Clean Energy Council.

Mining needs to be factored in, considering that although renewables are greener, the resources that go into producing them still require heaps of mining for the materials. Though it’s still substantially less mining than what would be required of coal and gas, mining for lithium and rare earth materials isn’t exactly green, and often produce tonnes of toxic waste. Such mines can span hundreds of kilometres, and with renewables and clean energy solutions on the rise, we can expect more of these mines to be established.

This is all, so far, without bringing up more ethical considerations surrounding solar and wind power. For one, we need to start working alongside Indigenous people to implement renewables and respect that it’s their land we install these renewables and mines on. Last week, UTS published their thoughts on maximising First Nations benefit from renewable energy (also worth a read).

Additionally, we need to consider the impact on local ecosystems. The introduction of renewable infrastructure has been found to impact directly on the behaviours of the local wildlife and influence the habitat.

That’s a lot of land considerations to keep front of mind.

I’m a big fan of how Ketan Joshi discusses our approach to renewables in one of the earlier linked articles:

There’s still a long way to go to imbue climate tech with enough staying power to be a reliable, solid and long-term solution. Whether it’s social, environmental or political, the way that climate tech is realised needs deep change. That change can be delightful and enriching if it’s done right – the kind of change we can embrace even though it’s big, and nerve-wracking.

Food for thought

Renewables of course sound good on paper, but we need to think about a hell of a lot more than just the outcome and consider how exactly it is we’re going to get there. At the moment, our renewable solutions require tonnes of mining and many hectares of land. As well the aforementioned ethical and environmental considerations and constraints.

This article doesn’t have the answer, but with all of the ‘climate’ and ‘renewables’ rhetoric around this week’s Federal Election, we have to think outside of the destination and consider the journey there.

This article has been updated since it was originally published. Originally we reported that it would take about 140 kilometres of land to power sydney on solar (85 million panels) but have since updated the numbers.