If the U.S. moves to carbon-free energy production by 2050, solar panels could require up to 0.5% of the land area of the lower 48 states.
Shifts to solar could reduce water usage by 88% in 2050 and may slightly increase hazardous elements in nearby soil and water.
Improvements to air quality from increased solar usage could save $300 —$400 billion by 2050.
Most U.S. non-residential solar systems are on land that receives little rain, including some forests, grasslands, shrubland, and barren areas (Kruitwagen 2021). Deployments on cropland also occur frequently.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicts that ground-based solar will require up to 0.5% of the total land area of the lower 48 states if the U.S. reaches zero carbon emissions from the electric grid by 2050 and significantly increases electricity use for transportation and buildings (Figure 1; Heath 2022).
MO is predicted to need 0.4% of its total land area for solar energy.
Figure 1. Solar energy land needs if electricity is decarbonized by 2050 (Heath 2022).
U.S. home prices within 1 mile of a large-scale solar project are up to 1.5% lower than homes 2—4 miles away from the same project (Elmallah 2023).
There is limited research on how solar projects impact agricultural land value.
previously developed areas and non-vegetative lands such as quarries and gravel pits. If solar panels are restricted to these areas, they will require 6.4% of this land.
Water is used in thermoelectric power plants (e.g., coal, oil, gas, nuclear) to create steam that drives electricity generating turbines and to cool equipment (USGS 2018).
Water use for solar panels is minimal and primarily used for cleaning solar panels (Heath 2022; USGS 2018; Dieter 2018). In one recent model, retiring coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants decreased water withdrawals by up to 88% by 2050 (Heath 2022).
Solar cells contain potentially hazardous elements (e.g., lead, cadmium). Solar panels are sealed during normal operation, which makes metal leaching unlikely (Summers 2003).
In soil samples taken near and far from 5 year old solar panel installations (Robinson 2019):
More research is needed to understand the potential for the leaching of hazardous materials from solar panels in actual landfills (Nain 2020) and after natural disasters.
Burning fuel in combustion power plants or vehicles releases pollution into the air, including particulate matter (tiny pieces of solid or liquid in the air; EIA 2022), greenhouse gases (GHG), sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.
Transportation and power generation account for 52% of U.S. GHGs (EPA 2022).
Reducing air pollution can reduce heart attacks, asthma, hospitalizations, deaths, and lost school and workdays (Heath 2022).
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