Lee M Miller and David W Keith. Observation-based solar and wind power capacity factors and power densities. Environmental Research Letters 13 (2018) 104008.
Power density is the rate of energy generation per unit of land surface area occupied by an energy system. The power density of low-carbon energy sources will play an important role in mediating the environmental consequences of energy system decarbonization as the world transitions away from high power-density fossil fuels. All else equal, lower power densities mean larger land and environmental footprints. The power density of solar and wind power remain surprisingly uncertain: estimates of realizable generation rates per unit area for wind and solar power span 0.3–47 We m−2and 10–120 We m−2 respectively. We refine this range using US data from 1990–2016. We estimate wind power density from primary data, and solar power density from primary plant-level data and prior datasets on capacity density. The mean power density of 411 onshore wind power plants in 2016 was 0.50 We m−2. Wind plants with the largest areas have the lowest power densities. Wind power capacity factors are increasing, but that increase is associated with a decrease in capacity densities, so power densities are stable or declining. If wind power expands away from the best locations and the areas of wind power plants keep increasing, it seems likely that wind’s power density will decrease as total wind generation increases. The mean 2016 power density of 1150 solar power plants was 5.4 We m−2. Solar capacity factors and (likely) power densities are increasing with time driven, in part, by improved panel efficiencies. Wind power has a 10-fold lower power density than solar, but wind power installations directly occupy much less of the land within their boundaries. The environmental and social consequences of these divergent land occupancy patterns need further study.