The Oberon Solar and Storage Project built in California
The Oberon Solar and Storage Project in Riverside County, California, built by Intersect Power comprises of 500-MW solar power plant and a 250-MW battery storage facility. It generates enough power to supply 207,000 homes for a year, according to the company. Image Credit: Intersect Power

In 2023, the US has installed a combined 33 gigawatts (GW) of solar power generating capacity, according to industry data.

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Germany installed a combined electricity generation capacity of 14.1 GW last year, a record and exceeded the government’s target of 9GW of new solar installations in 2023.

By comparison, China installed 200 GW in 2023, about six times more than the US.

The US has approved several utility-scale solar/battery storage projects, which will see solar power generation increasing by 75 per cent in 2024 and 2025, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Given this rise, coal's share of electricit
The US is catching up with several utility-scale solar/battery storage projects, which will see solar power generation increasing by 75 per cent in 2024 and 2025, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Given this rise, coal's share of electricity will drop to 18 per cent, according to the agency's outlook. Image Credit: @SEIA | X

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Now, the US government has unveiled “Western Solar Plan”, designating 22 million acres in western states for solar power.

What does this mean? Here’s a brief explainer.

How big is 22 million acres of land earmarked for solar power development?

It’s about 8.9 million hectares – equivalent to 8,900,000,000 billion square metres (m²), or about one-seventh the size of California.

California’s total land area is 423,970 km² (42.4 million hectares, 1 km² = 100 hectares, or ha).

For scale, the total land area of the US is 9,1474,20 square kilometres (km²) – the equivalent of 21 Californias – according to World Bank data.

What’s the plan all about?

The plan is outlined in the “Utility-Scale Solar Energy” Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” (PEIS) by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), on January 17, 2024, identified “optimal areas for solar development” across 11 US states.

Also known as the “Western Solar Plan”, it is designed to guide responsible solar development on public lands.

How big is the US land designated for oil and gas development?

Under the current US policy, there are at least 80 million acres of federal lands open to oil and gas development – nearly four times the amount of public land available for solar, according to Ben Norris, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

What are the 11 states covered by the “Western Solar Plan”?

  • [1] Arizona
  • [2] California
  • [3] Colorado
  • [4] Nevada
  • [5] New Mexico
  • [6] Utah
  • [7] Idaho,
  • [8] Montana,
  • [9] Oregon,
  • [10] Washington, and
  • [11] Wyoming.

(Initially published in 2012, the plan focused on Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The recent revision refines the analysis in these six states and expands it to include Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming.)

What's the US solar plan?

The plan, based on studies, is a recommendation to concentrate solar development in areas with fewer sensitive resources, minimal conflicts with other land uses, and proximity to existing transmission lines – and pinpoints 200,000 acres near transmission infrastructure.

The Interior Department’s revised plan addresses advances in tech, manufacturing, increased demand for renewable energy, and growing interest in solar development in northern states.

The comprehensive plan strategically targets lands within 10 miles of existing or planned transmission lines for efficient development.

In addition to the 22 million acres, the plan designates 126 million acres – acknowledging potential conflicts with critical wildlife habitats, recreational areas, historic sites, and old growth forests.

170,000 terawatt-hours (TWh)
To satisfy the world’s total energy consumption (based on 2020 total global energy consumption of 170,000 terawatt-hours (TWh), we’ll need to cover 20,000 km² with solar panels at existing efficiency (20%).

For perspective, 20,000 km² is 27 times the size of the land area of Singapore (729 km²).

But it’s only about 3 per cent (1/34) of the total size of the land area of Texas (total 695,662 km²), or about 1/5 of the Philippine island of Mindanao (97,530 km²), or 1/21 of the land area of the US state of California (423,970 km²).

What’s the industry reaction to the “Western Solar Plan”?

Ben Norris, Vice President of Regulatory Affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), sees the BLM's move as a “big step in the right direction.

In the US, residential daily consumption of electricity is 12 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per person, according to the Department of Energy. One estimate has it that if all parking lots and roofs of Walmart stores were to be used to tap solar power, it would generate enough electricity to power up to 20 per cent of the total energy use of the US, which in 2022 was about 4.05 trillion kWh, the highest amount recorded and 14 times greater than electricity use in 1950.

Norris emphasises the need to streamline permitting and leverage federal lands to boost job creation, enhance energy security, and improve conservation outcomes.

Laura Daniel-Davis, Interior Department’s acting deputy secretary, underscores the plan’s role in responsible permitting and ensuring consistency in processing rights of way for utility-scale solar projects.

Electricity generation from low-emission sources such as solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear will cover all global demand growth over the next three years, according to the Electricity 2024 report from the International Energy Agency. But there’s a huge gap in investments in renewables.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), for one, stated that investment in grids is crucial to the expansion in renewables capacity. By early 2025, renewables will provide more than one-third of total electricity generation, overtaking coal, the agency reckons.

By 2026, the low-emissions sources are forecast to account for almost half (50 per cent) of the world’s electricity generation, up from 39 per cent in 2023.

How much solar power capacity was added in the US in 2023?

In December, the SEIA stated that the United States added 33 GW of solar capacity across the country in 2023.

By comparison, data from the National Energy Administration (NEA), the agency responsible for China's national energy strategy, executes energy policy, and regulates energy sectors including coal, electricity, oil and gas, and nuclear, indicate that China is likely to have added more than 180 GW of solar generation capacity in 2023 and could top 200 GW, as it hit almost 143 GW of solar at the end of October 2023.

It was not the mainland’s best year for solar. In 2022, China has an installed solar power capacity of over 390 gigawatts, according to Statista.

Image Credit: IRENA | ILO

What's the potential for solar power in the US

Renewable energy projects in Arizona, California, and Nevada, represent over 1,700 MW (1GW) of “potential” solar generation, according to BLM.

Under the Biden administration, the BLM has approved 47 clean energy projects, capable of powering more than 3.5 million homes.

The Interior Department also disclosed progress toward approving six solar projects and a transmission line in Nevada, California, and Arizona.

Utility scale solar generation is set to increase 75 per cent in 2024 and 2025, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Given this rise, coal's share of electricity will drop to 18 per cent, according to the agency's outlook.

Is the “Western Solar Plan” final?


The proposal invites public input until April 18, 2024 with a final plan anticipated before the end-2024.

Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal | Gulf News (Source: Irena | ILO)

The term denotes the evolving phase of solar technology and energy systems presently undergoing enhancements.

These cutting-edge systems incorporate energy storage (think batteries) and other technologies, aimed at storing surplus energy generated by solar panels during daylight hours for use during nighttime or low sunlight periods.

Another aspect of Solar 3.0 involves smart grid integration, designed to seamlessly integrate into smart grids, enhancing the efficient distribution and management of energy.

What's the outlook for solar power?

Cost will continue to drop, according to most industry estimates. In 1975, the first solar panels cost about $115.3 per watt. By 2010, this price was already $2.15 per watt, and by 2021 it will be only $0.27 per watt.

It's a huge drop in cost – by almost 90% in the last 10 years. Solar will remain one of the most important green technologies.

The fact is thatworld has an insatiable appetite for energy. The challenge to generate more energy is not going away as a consumption has been on the rise.

One calculation assumes that, given an average solar panel efficiency of 20 per cent (conservative), based on current and widely available technology, we can calculate that 1 square metre of solar panels can produce approximately 200 watt-hours of electricity per day.

This means that to produce 170,000 TWh of electricity per year, we would need approximately 20,000 square kilometres (km2) – of solar panels. Together with batteries that can last for days (like a pumped hydro-power plant), solar energy will remain one of the most important green technologies.

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Solar panels need not be on land. Photo shows a floating solar power farm in Singapore.