Is solar eroding too much land? The EU thinks not


Scientists from the European Union’s Joint Research Center (JRC) have created the Enspreso – energy system potentials for renewable energy sources – dataset to evaluate potential land use for renewable energy across 276 regions in the EU’s member states and to assess how much generation capacity could be hosted.

In the paper ENSPRESO – an open, EU-28 wide, transparent and coherent database of wind, solar and biomass energy potentials, published on the ScienceDirect website, researchers stated the 28 EU member state dataset offers energy models about the potential of clean energy sources across the EU based on realistic land-restriction scenarios and bottom-up resource analysis.

The authors of the paper stressed solar and wind have, separately, the potential to produce three times more electricity than the EU generated in 2016. The paper concludes the solar projects needed to reach that goal would occupy only 1.4% of the political bloc’s total land surface – wind facilities would require at least 16%.

Ideal scenario

Solar potential was calculated considering solar irradiation data for rooftops, facades and available land of any kind, combined with geospatial analysis of areas suitable for PV installations and consideration of the solar technologies – PV and concentrating solar power – available.

Assuming 170 MW of solar power generation capacity per square kilometer, full use of available artificial areas and 3% use of available non-artificial areas, the EU could host 10 TW of solar capacity, stated the report, enough to generate 11,000 TWh, by occupying 1.4% of the total land area in the EU. And not all of that 1.4% would be agricultural land.

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With that 1.4% of land figure related to a theoretical best-case scenario, the realistic future development of solar is likely to occupy even less EU land and the study does not account for technology advances that may see solar sites occupy less space. The researchers added, their figures also fail to consider land cost restraints or public opposition to solar plants.

Land use debate

Opposition to solar based on loss of agricultural land is nothing new but has sharpened of late in European countries including the Netherlands, where restrictions were introduced in May to large scale solar park development, and Italy, where opposition has been vocal in planned solar hubs such as the provinces of Viterbo and Brindisi. In Germany and France too, protests have been made against solar parks and in South Korea, allegations have been made of forest clearance for PV plants.

In May, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency published a report about the solar potential of neglected surfaces and parking lots in addition to identifying 17,764 such sites which could host PV.

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