The United States’ drive to transition its economy to run on 100 percent renewable energy has made impressive strides. Since 2010, the share of U.S. power that is generated from renewable sources has more than doubled to 18 percent of all electricity consumption.
Fueled by technological advances, that pace of expansion is likely to continue. The cost of solar and wind power generation is now cheaper than fossil fuels, even more so in a $6-per-gallon environment. Also supporting expansion of renewables are the climate-friendly values of large swaths of the investment community, the power industry, and individual consumers, all of whom are voting with their wallets.
But these future solar farms have to be located somewhere, and the million-dollar question is, where? According to our calculations, it would take roughly 13 million acres of America’s land to generate 5 million GWh per year of additional electricity generation from green energy, enough to make the current grid fully renewable. Taking energy storage, electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, and the increase in electrical infrastructure needed into account, this figure doubles to some 26 million acres.
That’s roughly 1 percent of the territory of the United States, approximately the size of the state of Kentucky — and 25 times more acreage than solar farms occupy today. That’s also assuming no increase in U.S. energy consumption.
Right now, those 26 million acres — which are currently being used for farming, ranching, recreation or pure speculation — are undervalued. They are likely yielding their owners about 2 percent per year. Were they to become home to new solar farms, in addition to their other uses, the same land could yield significantly higher annual returns, at least 10 percent and as much as 25 percent per year.
But while the incentive to convert that land is great (it would benefit landowners, energy developers and climate activists) capitalizing on it is far from straightforward.
The 26 million acres that could be converted for renewable development are not evenly distributed across the United States, nor are they easy to find. Not all land is suitable for solar farming. Conditions that make for an optimal solar farm site include proximity to a substation, transmission with available capacity, buildable acreage without exclusion zones such as waterways, wetland, grassland, and other topographical features. Fast-evolving local, state and federal government incentives also make some locations much more attractive to developing a solar farm than others.
Unfortunately, a lack of relevant information about these factors used to mean that most landowners could not determine if their land met these requirements.
Meanwhile, investors and developers looking to capitalize on opportunities at the intersection of land and power generation similarly struggled to identify suitable parcels and sift out, among the millions of people who own land in the United States, those landowners who were open to licensing their land to solar developers.
With the help of technology and the power of data, that is changing.
With more information now available, we can expect a growing number of landowners to explore their land’s suitability for renewable energy generation and pave the road for the country’s increasingly sustainable future.
Yoann Hispa is the founder and CEO of LandGate, a marketplace and data provider for commercial land and its resources.