Utility-scale PV’s power (MW/acre) and energy (MWh/acre) density have improved significantly over the past decade

January 18, 2022

Berkeley Lab is pleased to announce the publication of a new article—“Land Requirements for Utility-Scale PV: An Empirical Update on Power and Energy Density”—that was recently published in the IEEE Journal of Photovoltaics.

Concerns about the land requirements and land-use impacts of utility-scale PV have grown as deployment has accelerated and as decarbonization plans routinely call for an unprecedented expansion of the sector. The amount of land required to build a utility-scale PV plant is also an important cost consideration, and—unlike other PV plant costs (such as for modules and inverters), which tend to decline with greater deployment due to learning and economies of scale—land costs are perhaps more likely to increase with greater deployment, as competition for prime sites intensifies. Both of these concerns—i.e., expanded land requirements and land-use impacts, as well as rising land costs—can be mitigated by increasing the power and energy densities of utility-scale PV.

This study provides the first major update of utility-scale PV’s power and energy densities in nearly a decade. It is based on a large, nearly complete sample of ground-mounted PV plants larger than 5 MW-AC that were built in the United States from 2007-2019. We use ArcGIS to draw polygons around satellite imagery of each plant within our sample, and to calculate the area occupied by each polygon. When combined with plant metadata, these polygon areas allow us to calculate power (MW/acre) and energy (MWh/year/acre) density for each plant in the sample, and to analyze density trends over time, by fixed-tilt versus tracking plants, and by plant latitude and site irradiance. We find that the median power density increased by 52% for fixed-tilt plants and 43% for tracking plants from 2011 through 2019 (see the graph below, which also depicts the influence of increasing module efficiency), while the median energy density increased by 33% for fixed-tilt and 25% for tracking plants over the same period. Those analysts, modelers, planners, regulators, and policymakers still relying on earlier density benchmarks published nearly a decade ago are thus significantly overstating the land requirements of utility-scale PV.

This new article is freely available for download, via open access, at https://emp.lbl.gov/publications/land-requirements-utility-scale-pv.

In addition, Berkeley Lab will present key findings from the article during a free half-hour webinar on Tuesday, February 1 at 10 AM Pacific/1 PM Eastern. Register here: https://lbnl.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ze6G_soJSlGQ564f5oltcQ.

We appreciate the funding support of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office in making this work possible.



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