The land use impacts of solar compared to oil and gas

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As solar energy has dramatically increased in recent years (even being called “The new shale gas” by some) and is now reaching Minnesota in a big way, land use concerns from solar are beginning to bubble up. So we thought it would be interesting to do some simple comparisons with these massive oil and gas numbers and solar; keeping in mind that impacts from the use of land by these energy sources are vastly different (for example solar farms don’t risk spilling toxic chemicals, have no emissions and can provide habitat under and between panels, including for pollinators in Midwest).

For solar land use, one recent example is Geronimo Energy’s 100 megawatt solar project that the Minnesota PUC, in late May, gave final approval to. The project will produce enough solar energy to power approximately 20,000 homes and it will be spread over ten sites across Minnesota. The full project area is 1,200 acres, or 12 acres per megawatt. Other large-scale solar projects in the queue in Minnesota are more concentrated at seven to eight acres per megawatt, so 10 acres per megawatt should be a fair, conservative estimate for solar land in Minnesota..

If we use that estimate, the surface land use from oil and gas drilling in the U.S. and Canada would be enough land area to accommodate about 740,000 megawatts of solar energy. That nameplate capacity would be over 40 times the amount of the current electricity generating capacity in Minnesota.

So while oil and gas development’s impacts appear much larger than most would have expected, possible land use impacts from large-scale solar in Minnesota is a different story. Even if all of Minnesota’s approximately 15,500 megawatts of electricity generating capacity was ground-mounted solar installed in the state on a nameplate basis, using the same conservative ten acres per megawatt for solar, it would cover only 0.3% of Minnesota’s land area. And that same amount, if installed entirely on useable farmland (which nowhere near all of the solar in Minnesota will be), would cover only 0.57% of Minnesota’s farmland.

With a changing energy landscape, it’s easy to only focus on the impacts of what’s new. This study of oil and gas drilling is a good reminder to consider the impact of our current energy practices as we transition to a clean energy future.

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Photo: Chris Boyer, Kestral Aerial Services Inc.

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