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How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

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How much land would it take to power the U.S. with solar?

How Much Land is Needed to Power the U.S. with Solar?

The Biden administration has set a goal of reaching 100% clean electricity throughout the U.S. by 2035, and solar power is a key for this American energy transition.

In the last decade alone, solar has experienced an average annual growth rate of 42% in the U.S. thanks to federal tax credits, declining costs, and increasing demand. It is projected that more than one in seven American homes will have a solar power system by 2030.

To put this trend into perspective, this graphic uses data from the United States Department of Energy to see how much land would be needed to power the entire country with solar panels.

Solar Panels Across the Ocean State

The U.S. has 102.9 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity which is equivalent to 965 square miles, roughly the size of the country’s smallest state, Rhode Island. This current solar capacity generates enough electricity to power 18.6 million American homes, which is nearly 13% of the nation’s households.

According to a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, roughly 22,000 square miles of solar panel-filled land (about the size of Lake Michigan) would be required to power the entire country, including all 141 million households and businesses, based on 13-14% efficiency for solar modules.

Many solar panels, however, reach 20% efficiency, which could reduce the necessary area to just about 10,000 square miles, equivalent to the size of Lake Erie.

Solar Installations Spreading Across the States

Today, solar represents only 3% of the total U.S. electrical generation.

While California has traditionally dominated the market, other states like Florida and Texas are expanding rapidly, boosted by the residential market.

Large companies with clean energy goals such as Walmart, Apple, Target and Amazon have also helped push solar adoption to near-record levels in 2021.

How much land is needed to power the U.S. with solar?

Despite having a high installation cost, the technology tends to bring savings in the long term. An average-sized residential system has dropped from a price of $40,000 in 2010 to roughly $20,000 in 2020. Along with this, solar panels can save between $10,000-$30,000 over a 30-year lifetime.

Between land and rooftops, the United States has more than enough space to build all the solar panels necessary to power the country. Until then, the future of clean electricity will also depend on hydro, nuclear, geothermal, and wind energy.

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Electrification

The Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Which key minerals power the lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles?

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minerals in an EV battery infographic

Breaking Down the Key Minerals in an EV Battery

Inside practically every electric vehicle (EV) is a lithium-ion battery that depends on several key minerals that help power it.

Some minerals make up intricate parts within the cell to ensure the flow of electrical current. Others protect it from accidental damage on the outside.

This infographic uses data from the European Federation for Transport and Environment to break down the key minerals in an EV battery. The mineral content is based on the ‘average 2020 battery’, which refers to the weighted average of battery chemistries on the market in 2020.

The Battery Minerals Mix

The cells in the average battery with a 60 kilowatt-hour (kWh) capacity—the same size that’s used in a Chevy Bolt—contained roughly 185 kilograms of minerals. This figure excludes materials in the electrolyte, binder, separator, and battery pack casing.

MineralCell PartAmount Contained in the Avg. 2020 Battery (kg)% of Total
GraphiteAnode52kg28.1%
AluminumCathode, Casing, Current collectors35kg18.9%
NickelCathode29kg15.7%
CopperCurrent collectors20kg10.8%
SteelCasing20kg10.8%
ManganeseCathode10kg5.4%
CobaltCathode8kg4.3%
LithiumCathode6kg3.2%
IronCathode5kg2.7%
TotalN/A185kg100%

The cathode contains the widest variety of minerals and is arguably the most important and expensive component of the battery. The composition of the cathode is a major determinant in the performance of the battery, with each mineral offering a unique benefit.

For example, NMC batteries, which accounted for 72% of batteries used in EVs in 2020 (excluding China), have a cathode composed of nickel, manganese, and cobalt along with lithium. The higher nickel content in these batteries tends to increase their energy density or the amount of energy stored per unit of volume, increasing the driving range of the EV. Cobalt and manganese often act as stabilizers in NMC batteries, improving their safety.

Altogether, materials in the cathode account for 31.3% of the mineral weight in the average battery produced in 2020. This figure doesn’t include aluminum, which is used in nickel-cobalt-aluminum (NCA) cathode chemistries, but is also used elsewhere in the battery for casing and current collectors.

Meanwhile, graphite has been the go-to material for anodes due to its relatively low cost, abundance, and long cycle life. Since the entire anode is made up of graphite, it’s the single-largest mineral component of the battery. Other materials include steel in the casing that protects the cell from external damage, along with copper, used as the current collector for the anode.

Minerals Bonded by Chemistry

There are several types of lithium-ion batteries with different compositions of cathode minerals. Their names typically allude to their mineral breakdown.

For example:

  • NMC811 batteries cathode composition:
    80% nickel
    10% manganese
    10% cobalt
  • NMC523 batteries cathode composition:
    50% nickel
    20% manganese
    30% cobalt

Here’s how the mineral contents differ for various battery chemistries with a 60kWh capacity:

battery minerals by chemistry

With consumers looking for higher-range EVs that do not need frequent recharging, nickel-rich cathodes have become commonplace. In fact, nickel-based chemistries accounted for 80% of the battery capacity deployed in new plug-in EVs in 2021.

Lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries do not use any nickel and typically offer lower energy densities at better value. Unlike nickel-based batteries that use lithium hydroxide compounds in the cathode, LFP batteries use lithium carbonate, which is a cheaper alternative. Tesla recently joined several Chinese automakers in using LFP cathodes for standard-range cars, driving the price of lithium carbonate to record highs.

The EV battery market is still in its early hours, with plenty of growth on the horizon. Battery chemistries are constantly evolving, and as automakers come up with new models with different characteristics, it’ll be interesting to see which new cathodes come around the block.

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Electrification

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Which fuels do U.S. home heating systems use?

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home heating systems in the U.S. broken down by share of fuel sources

Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

Fossil fuel combustion for the heating of commercial and residential buildings accounts for roughly 13% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires a switch from fossil fuel-combusting heating solutions to renewable energy sources that generate electricity.

Currently, the majority of new homes in the U.S. still combust natural gas for heating through forced-air furnaces or boilers. Just like cars need to be electric, homes will need to switch to electricity-powered heating systems that use renewable energy sources.

The graphic above uses census data to break down the different heating systems and fuels that are warming the 911,000 single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2020.

Types of Home Heating Systems

Most American homes use one of the following three heating systems:

  • Forced-air Furnaces: These typically have a burner in a furnace that is fueled by natural gas. A blower forces cold air through a heat exchanger which warms it up before it flows through ducts that heat the home with air as the medium.
  • Heat Pumps: The most common type of heat pumps are air-source heat pumps, which collect hot air from outside the home and concentrate it before pumping it through ducts that heat the air inside. They are usually powered by electricity. During warmer months, heat pumps can reverse themselves to cool the home, transferring hot air from the inside to the outdoors.
  • Hot Water/Steam: These systems typically work by boiling water (or generating steam) to the appropriate temperature using gas and sending it through a home’s pipes to radiators that heat the air.

How Home Heating Fuels Have Changed

U.S. home heating has been going through a transition over the last two decades. Electricity has steadily been replacing gas and biofuel/wood-powered home heating systems for new homes, and powers almost half of the heating systems in single-family homes built in 2020.

Here’s how the share of heat sources for new houses changed between 2000 and 2020:

Fuel2000 % of Heating for New Homes2020 % of Heating for New Homes
Gas70%55%
Electricity27%45%
Other4%1%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

While electricity’s share has grown since 2000, most American homes are still heated with gas largely because of the fossil fuel’s affordability.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households relying on gas for space heating are expected to spend an average of $746 over the winter months, compared to $1,268 for electricity, and $1,734 for heating oil.

Heating in Newly-Built Houses Today

Of the 911,000 new single-family homes, 538,000 houses installed forced-air furnaces. Of these, 83% or nearly 450,000 homes used gas as the primary heating source, with 16% opting for electrified furnaces. By contrast, 88% of the 353,000 homes that installed heat pumps relied on electricity.

Here’s how the heating systems and fuels break down for single-family homes built in 2020:

System UsedHouses Built in 2020% Powered by Gas% Powered by Electricity% Powered by Other
Forced-Air Furnace538,00083%16%<0.5%
Heat Pump353,00012%88%0%
Hot Water/Steam8,00089%5%7%
Other/None12,00012%41%47%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Fewer than 1% of new single-family homes used hot water or steam systems, and the majority of those that did relied on gas as the primary fuel. Around 1.3% of new homes used other systems like electric baseboard heaters, smaller space heaters, panel heaters, or radiators.

While gas remains the dominant heating source today, efforts to decarbonize the U.S. economy could further prompt a shift towards electricity-based heating systems, with electric heat pumps likely taking up a larger piece of the pie.

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