Brussels, we have a land problem
That solar panels and wind farms take up a lot of space is a fact that can hardly be disputed because of how visible it is. That this spatial aspect of renewables could create much broader problems than the ‘Not In My Back Yard’ opposition seen in the U.S. and elsewhere was not something I’d given much thought to, until recently.
Two weeks ago, as I was reading a presentation by Doug Sandridge for an upcoming interview, I came across this eye-popping quote: “In a decarbonized world that is renewable-powered, the land area required to maintain today's British energy consumption would have to be similar to the area of Britain.”
The illustrious source is Professor Sir David John Cameron MacKay, a British physicist and mathematician, who is, sadly, no longer with us after passing away aged just 48. The paper it comes from was published in 2013 and focused on the power density of renewable energy.
Solar panels, MacKay explained, have to occupy a minimum amount of land. Based on calculations of per capita power consumption in different countries and on differences in population density, he concluded that in Britain, for instance, consumption per square metre is 1.25 Watts and that the power density of solar and wind farms in Britain—as well as other forms of renewable energy—is roughly the same.
So, if Britain really wants to go 100% renewable, it would need another Britain to supply the electricity necessary because of the extremely low power density of the generating sources.
Moreover, power density is also lower in solar farms than in individual panels, MacKay notes, “because the filling factor—the ratio of functional panel area to land area—is small, say, 14 per cent”. This is something well worth considering given the current focus on utility-scale solar as the way forward.
The paper makes for a fascinating read and I recommend it to everyone. It also makes for some gloomy inferences. One of these is that if we stick to the net-zero-with-renewables scenario that is based on a massive build-up of wind and solar, we would need to make some serious environmental sacrifices—ironic as that may be given that it is ‘environmentalists’ who are pushing the 100% renewable agenda.
MacKay’s paper is not the only expert warning out there.
A more recent study by Spanish researchers found that going 100% renewable with solar will be impossible for most EU member states, as well as countries such as Japan. Of course, defenders of the EU climate change plan will immediate point out that nobody plans to go 100% solar. Yet the authors explain why they are using solar only for their scenario: because it has the highest power density among renewables.
Their studies found that “for many advanced capitalist economies, the land requirements over the total terrestrial surface area to supply current electricity consumption would be substantial, the situation being especially challenging for those located in northern latitudes with high population densities and high electricity consumption per capita.”
One might wonder why these findings are so different from all the studies that conclude there’s no problem at all going 100% renewable. According to the paper’s authors, the reason for their worrying conclusions is that, unlike other research focused on renewables, they take into account two factors that are usually omitted.
These are, first, the intermittency of solar power generation and, second, the “real land occupation” of solar farms. Not taking these factors into account when modeling the energy transition raises awkward questions, especially in light of the fact that excess solar—and wind—capacity is being put forward as the way to solve the intermittency problem.
There is indeed little else you can do about intermittency than put in more solar panels than you need and back it all up with batteries. There seems to be plenty of research on that, too, including assessments of how much extra land would be needed. But, according to the Spanish authors, “The real land occupation of solar technologies is five to ten times higher than the estimates usually considered, which are based on ideal conditions.”
So, in Bulgaria, for instance, forests would need to be cleared—and indeed they already are — to build solar farms in places with more sunshine. Alternatively, farmland would need to be converted into solar and wind farms to achieve this massive capacity increase, even if we’re not aiming for a 100% renewable grid. The reason, of course, is that there is simply not enough available, unused, and otherwise unusable land in the country to avoid forest-clearing and farmland-conversion if we go all in on the net-zero scenario (and if we exclude nuclear).
But this is not true of all countries.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a substantially lower population density than Bulgaria, at 16 people per sq km compared to 64 people per sq km in Bulgaria. The kingdom also has a lot of sunny desert space, perfect for solar, and a pretty long coastline, perfect for wind. Saudi Arabia, then, could much more easily afford a massive wind and solar capacity build-up than Bulgaria without making environmental compromises such as forest-clearing. Theoretically, it could then export the excess energy to countries such as Bulgaria.
After the years I’ve spent covering renewable energy, I became convinced that the top advantage of wind and solar power over fossil fuels is energy security rather than reduced emissions. When you have wind and solar farms at home you don’t need to import oil and gas. However, that was before I started considering the power density issue Professor MacKay explained so vividly.
You might wonder why power density is not often talked about as part of energy transition issues since it is such an important one. Then again, you might not. Challenges to the conventional narrative are most unwelcome, especially when they question fundamental tenets of the plan. However, these challenges are just as important as they are unwelcome.
To go back to the above example, if public pressure prevents Bulgaria from covering every available surface with solar panels and wind turbines, the chances are that, with enough pressure to lower emissions from Brussels, it will find itself forced to become dependent on other countries for its energy needs.
In other words, instead of becoming more energy independent due to renewables, as the narrative claims, we would become less independent, because, in addition to all the solar and wind farms, we’d be shutting down the one local energy resource we have: coal. It’s all part of the transition, after all.
I’m sure there are people who would welcome such a development, not only in Saudi Arabia and other land-rich countries that stand to benefit economically from the transition. For me as an average Bulgarian, however, this is not exactly a dream scenario. I’m sure it’s not exactly ideal for the average Brit or German or Belgian, either—even if Brits and Germans are already quite dependent on imports and Belgians are about to become dependent when they phase out their nuclear power plants.
The picture at the top of this post shows our village and the plain beyond. If you look closely, you’ll see three plumes of smoke or steam in the distance. They are from the Maritsa East thermal power plant that supplies a good portion of the electricity in the country. Obviously, Maritsa East is a target in the energy transition with commitments being made to close all coal power plants by 2038 or sooner.
The way I see it, if we are to replace the energy generated by the Maritsa East, whose three plants have a combined installed capacity of 3.2 GW, we would probably need to cover the area between our village and the power plant with solar panels. That’s farmland, by the way, and it is actively used. So, we’d need to choose between farm land and solar energy—or, to put it another way, we’d need to choose whether to import energy or food.
This sounds like a pretty unpleasant choice to make and it is also one that would only hold true if those solar farms are backed with huge battery capacity to store enough electricity to replace the Maritsa East. That would need more land, as batteries are hardly likely to shrink a lot in the coming years.
Ultimately, I think, if we go down that road we’d be importing both food and energy. And so will many other countries that failed to solve the power density problem of renewable energy because they are too focused on the net-zero narrative.
What this potential development suggests is that, as the authors of the Spanish research remind us, way too many convenient assumptions are being made by the net-zero transition planners. Just like pretty much all solar industry growth forecasts assumed costs will consistently continue to go down, ignoring such obvious facts as falling metal ore grades and higher energy costs, it seems that the bigger net-zero plans assume things about renewables that are very different from reality.