12.5 Square Miles???

MaxPower August 15th, 2008

Companies in California announced that they will build two new solar plants which will produce 12 times the electricity currently coming from solar in California. The plants will produce 800 megawatts which is about the size of a small/medium sized coal plant.

Sounds great right? Well the plants will cover 12.5 square miles or 20.12 square kilometres to give you about 40MW per square km. Think about that. For Albertans, 20 km is the distance from downtown Calgary to Balzac (just north of the airport, outside the city) and see below for a picture of what a complex looks like. For Americans, the distance between the tip of downtown Manhattan and the Bronx is about 12.5 (linear) miles.

Does no one see a problem with covering 12.5 square miles of land with a solar array?

Now anyone who knows me, knows that I support any sort of energy program which applies differing sources of power. I’m not bound by ideology to say no to nuclear, clean coal, gasification, hydro, solar or wind, I think all of these sources have a place in sourcing our energy needs. However, I don’t think I am going to be out on a limb in saying that proposing to build a 2000 MW solar plant (the electricity generation of a large nuclear plant) which would take up 50 square km (Calgary to Crossfield – edit: linear distance) would come under serious negative press.

Just like I predicted back in 2005 that the use of biofuels would quickly become an ethical questions (is it moral to convert food to power your car?), I predict that as soon as a few of these monster solar arrays go in there will be major, major opposition to the concept. I can’t believe the NY Times article above doesn’t even mention the land which will need to be converted to an essentially industrial use for these plants.

I do, however, think there are lots of good and positive ways to utilize solar power. For example, Wal-Mart proposing to put solar panels on the roofs of their buildings is a good use of otherwise useless space. If every big box store had solar panels on its roof, it would reduce the power required for these stores by potentially up to a third.

  • Wow.. That is a LOT of land.. I was trying to actually try and comprehend that amount of space and couldn’t quite do it.. WTF is Crossfield?! ;)

    Anyways, I took a minute and opened up google earth and drew out a 12.5sq/mile square. Here check it out:

    That’s almost ALL of Calgary!!! Goddamn! FAIL!

  • Hah.. OMG.. Thanks to twitter, someone pointed out that I just highlighted 144 sq miles.. ROFL.. I need some coffee.. ;)

    THIS is ~12 sq Miles:

  • Crossfield is north of Airdrie my man…

    Yeah, the calculation of square miles (or km) is hard to fathom because most people think in linear directions, which is why I illustrated the concept with a linear distance. It wasn’t a great comparison, your little box is better :P

    Regardless that is a huge tract of land, which was my point obviously.

  • TDJ

    My question as someone who works in semiconductor research is how much energy is going into making those solar cells (semiconductor production/device fabrication uses a horrendous amount of resources and energy), and how long will it take for the energy cost of fabricating the cells be offset by the solar energy the cells produce?

    Will they replace the cells with more efficient cells in the future? and if so the problem of offsetting the fabrication energy will have to be met again.