To my four-year-old son, electricity must seem magic—this invisible stuff that comes out of the wall sockets to power the fridge, to light up the TV, or run his favorite toy, an electric piano. He has no personal experience of where it comes from, even if he does see the wires on which it travels.
Plus, wind and solar capacity take up far more physical space than traditional power plants—7.6 hectares per megawatt for wind and, according to a new analysis published this week by BloombergNEF, 1.7 hectares per megawatt for solar.
As of now, around 650 gigawatts of solar and 644 gigawatts of wind have been commissioned worldwide, accounting for around 8% of global electricity generation and covering around 52,000 square kilometers. Onshore wind and solar will supply 48% of global electricity by 2050, according to BNEF’s New Energy Outlook 2019 scenario, which will require an eight- to nine-fold increase in land use, to more than 423,000 square kilometers.
But let’s say all road vehicles and buildings were to go electric. To keep emissions in line with the 2 degrees Celsius warming limit prescribed by the Paris climate agreement, the power sector would have to deploy around 26,000 terawatt hours of wind and solar generation by 2050, which would cover a land area the size of Turkey. The land-use impacts in this scenario differ by country: It would take less than 1% of land in the U.S., China, and India, but as much as 7.4% in Germany. While the latter is a big number, it’s still much smaller than woodland, which accounts for 30.6% of Germany’s total land area, and agriculture, which covers 51.7%.