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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

Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem

In 2020, China produced 59% of natural graphite and over 80% of battery anode material. Here’s a look at the graphite supply problem.

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natural graphite

Visualizing the Natural Graphite Supply Problem

Graphite is a critical mineral for lithium-ion batteries, and its battery demand is expected to grow ten-fold by 2030.

Meeting this increasing demand will require a higher supply of both natural graphite and its synthetic counterpart. However, graphite’s entire supply chain is heavily reliant on China, which makes it vulnerable to disruptions while creating environmental challenges.

This infographic from our sponsor Northern Graphite highlights China’s stronghold over the graphite supply chain and outlines the need for new natural graphite mines.

China’s Dominance in the Graphite Supply Chain

From mining natural graphite to manufacturing battery anodes, China dominates every stage of the graphite supply chain.

For example, in 2020, 59% of global natural graphite production came from China. Mozambique, the second-largest producer, churned out 120,000 tonnes—just one-fifth of Chinese production.

Country2020E production, tonnes% of total
China 🇨🇳650,00059.1%
Mozambique 🇲🇿120,00010.9%
Brazil 🇧🇷95,0008.6%
Madagascar 🇲🇬47,0004.3%
India 🇮🇳34,0003.1%
Russia 🇷🇺24,0002.2%
Ukraine 🇺🇦19,0001.7%
Norway 🇳🇴15,0001.4%
Pakistan 🇵🇰13,0001.2%
Canada 🇨🇦10,0000.9%
Rest of the World 🌎73,0006.6%
Total1,100,000100%

China’s massive output makes the other top nine countries look substantially smaller in terms of natural graphite production. Moreover, China also dominates the manufacturing of synthetic graphite and the conversion of graphite into anode material for batteries.

In 2018, China produced nearly 80% of all synthetic graphite, and in 2019, it was responsible for 86% of all battery anode material production. This dependence on graphite supply from China puts the supply chain at risk of political disruptions and makes it unsustainable for the long term.

Unsustainable Production: Natural Graphite vs Synthetic Graphite

The carbon footprint of manufacturing partly depends on the source of energy used in production.

Coal dominates China’s energy mix with a 58% share, followed by petroleum and other liquids. This increases the carbon footprint of all production and especially that of synthetic graphite, which involves energy-intensive heat treatment of petroleum coke.

Energy sourceType% of China's energy consumption (2019)
Coal Fossil fuel58%
Petroleum and other liquidsFossil fuel20%
Hydro Renewable8%
Natural gasFossil fuel8%
Other renewablesRenewable5%
NuclearNon-renewable2%
TotalN/A100%

Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.

One study found that producing one kg of synthetic graphite releases 4.9kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in addition to smaller amounts of sulfur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. While the carbon footprint of natural graphite is substantially smaller, it’s likely that China’s dependence on coal contributes to emissions from production.

Furthermore, concentrated production in China means that all this graphite travels long distances before reaching Western markets like the United States. These extensive shipping distances further exacerbate the risk of disruptions in the graphite supply chain.

The Need for New Sources

As the demand for graphite increases, developing a resilient graphite supply chain is crucial to the European Union and the U.S., both of which have declared graphite a critical mineral.

New graphite mines outside China will be key to meeting graphite’s rising demand and combating a potential supply deficit.

Northern Graphite is positioned to deliver natural graphite in a secure, sustainable, and transparent manner for the green economy.

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Electrification

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

In 2020, solar power saw its largest-ever annual capacity expansion at 127 gigawatts. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country.

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Solar Power by Country

Mapped: Solar Power by Country in 2021

The world is adopting renewable energy at an unprecedented pace, and solar power is leading the way.

Despite a 4.5% fall in global energy demand in 2020, renewable energy technologies showed promising progress. While the growth in renewables was strong across the board, solar power led from the front with 127 gigawatts installed in 2020, its largest-ever annual capacity expansion.

The above infographic uses data from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) to map solar power capacity by country in 2021. This includes both solar photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power capacity.

The Solar Power Leaderboard

From the Americas to Oceania, countries in virtually every continent (except Antarctica) added more solar to their mix last year. Here’s a snapshot of solar power capacity by country at the beginning of 2021:

CountryInstalled capacity, megawattsWatts* per capita% of world total
China 🇨🇳 254,35514735.6%
U.S. 🇺🇸 75,57223110.6%
Japan 🇯🇵 67,0004989.4%
Germany 🇩🇪 53,7835937.5%
India 🇮🇳 39,211325.5%
Italy 🇮🇹 21,6003453.0%
Australia 🇦🇺 17,6276372.5%
Vietnam 🇻🇳 16,504602.3%
South Korea 🇰🇷 14,5752172.0%
Spain 🇪🇸 14,0891862.0%
United Kingdom 🇬🇧 13,5632001.9%
France 🇫🇷 11,7331481.6%
Netherlands 🇳🇱 10,2133961.4%
Brazil 🇧🇷 7,881221.1%
Turkey 🇹🇷 6,668730.9%
South Africa 🇿🇦 5,990440.8%
Taiwan 🇹🇼 5,8171720.8%
Belgium 🇧🇪 5,6463940.8%
Mexico 🇲🇽 5,644350.8%
Ukraine 🇺🇦 5,3601140.8%
Poland 🇵🇱 3,936340.6%
Canada 🇨🇦 3,325880.5%
Greece 🇬🇷 3,2472580.5%
Chile 🇨🇱 3,2051420.4%
Switzerland 🇨🇭 3,1182950.4%
Thailand 🇹🇭 2,988430.4%
United Arab Emirates 🇦🇪 2,5391850.4%
Austria 🇦🇹 2,2201780.3%
Czech Republic 🇨🇿 2,0731940.3%
Hungary 🇭🇺 1,9531310.3%
Egypt 🇪🇬 1,694170.2%
Malaysia 🇲🇾 1,493280.2%
Israel 🇮🇱 1,4391340.2%
Russia 🇷🇺 1,42870.2%
Sweden 🇸🇪 1,417630.2%
Romania 🇷🇴 1,387710.2%
Jordan 🇯🇴 1,3591000.2%
Denmark 🇩🇰 1,3001860.2%
Bulgaria 🇧🇬 1,0731520.2%
Philippines 🇵🇭 1,04890.1%
Portugal 🇵🇹 1,025810.1%
Argentina 🇦🇷 764170.1%
Pakistan 🇵🇰 73760.1%
Morocco 🇲🇦 73460.1%
Slovakia 🇸🇰 593870.1%
Honduras 🇭🇳 514530.1%
Algeria 🇩🇿 448100.1%
El Salvador 🇸🇻 429660.1%
Iran 🇮🇷 41450.1%
Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 409120.1%
Finland 🇫🇮 391390.1%
Dominican Republic 🇩🇴 370340.1%
Peru 🇵🇪 331100.05%
Singapore 🇸🇬 329450.05%
Bangladesh 🇧🇩 30120.04%
Slovenia 🇸🇮 2671280.04%
Uruguay 🇺🇾 256740.04%
Yemen 🇾🇪 25380.04%
Iraq 🇮🇶 21650.03%
Cambodia 🇰🇭 208120.03%
Cyprus 🇨🇾 2001470.03%
Panama 🇵🇦 198460.03%
Luxembourg 🇱🇺 1952440.03%
Malta 🇲🇹 1843120.03%
Indonesia 🇮🇩 17210.02%
Cuba 🇨🇺 163140.02%
Belarus 🇧🇾 159170.02%
Senegal 🇸🇳 15580.02%
Norway 🇳🇴 152170.02%
Lithuania 🇱🇹 148370.02%
Namibia 🇳🇦 145550.02%
New Zealand 🇳🇿 142290.02%
Estonia 🇪🇪 130980.02%
Bolivia 🇧🇴 120100.02%
Oman 🇴🇲 109210.02%
Colombia 🇨🇴 10720.01%
Kenya 🇰🇪 10620.01%
Guatemala 🇬🇹10160.01%
Croatia 🇭🇷 85170.01%
World total 🌎 713,97083100.0%

*1 megawatt = 1,000,000 watts.

China is the undisputed leader in solar installations, with over 35% of global capacity. What’s more, the country is showing no signs of slowing down. It has the world’s largest wind and solar project in the pipeline, which could add another 400,000MW to its clean energy capacity.

Following China from afar is the U.S., which recently surpassed 100,000MW of solar power capacity after installing another 50,000MW in the first three months of 2021. Annual solar growth in the U.S. has averaged an impressive 42% over the last decade. Policies like the solar investment tax credit, which offers a 26% tax credit on residential and commercial solar systems, have helped propel the industry forward.

Although Australia hosts a fraction of China’s solar capacity, it tops the per capita rankings due to its relatively low population of 26 million people. The Australian continent receives the highest amount of solar radiation of any continent, and over 30% of Australian households now have rooftop solar PV systems.

China: The Solar Champion

In 2020, President Xi Jinping stated that China aims to be carbon neutral by 2060, and the country is taking steps to get there.

China is a leader in the solar industry, and it seems to have cracked the code for the entire solar supply chain. In 2019, Chinese firms produced 66% of the world’s polysilicon, the initial building block of silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) panels. Furthermore, more than three-quarters of solar cells came from China, along with 72% of the world’s PV panels.

With that said, it’s no surprise that 5 of the world’s 10 largest solar parks are in China, and it will likely continue to build more as it transitions to carbon neutrality.

What’s Driving the Rush for Solar Power?

The energy transition is a major factor in the rise of renewables, but solar’s growth is partly due to how cheap it has become over time. Solar energy costs have fallen exponentially over the last decade, and it’s now the cheapest source of new energy generation.

Since 2010, the cost of solar power has seen a 85% decrease, down from $0.28 to $0.04 per kWh. According to MIT researchers, economies of scale have been the single-largest factor in continuing the cost decline for the last decade. In other words, as the world installed and made more solar panels, production became cheaper and more efficient.

This year, solar costs are rising due to supply chain issues, but the rise is likely to be temporary as bottlenecks resolve.

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