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Assessing vulnerabilities and limits in the transition to renewable energies: Land requirements under 100% solar energy scenarios

Iñigo Capellán-Pérez, Carlos de Castro and Iñaki Arto

Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2017, vol. 77, issue C, 760-782

Abstract: The transition to renewable energies will intensify the global competition for land. Nevertheless, most analyses to date have concluded that land will not pose significant constraints on this transition. Here, we estimate the land-use requirements to supply all currently consumed electricity and final energy with domestic solar energy for 40 countries considering two key issues that are usually not taken into account: (1) the need to cope with the variability of the solar resource, and (2) the real land occupation of solar technologies. We focus on solar since it has the highest power density and biophysical potential among renewables. The exercise performed shows that for many advanced capitalist economies the land requirements to cover their current electricity consumption would be substantial, the situation being especially challenging for those located in northern latitudes with high population densities and high electricity consumption per capita. Assessing the implications in terms of land availability (i.e., land not already used for human activities), the list of vulnerable countries enlarges substantially (the EU-27 requiring around 50% of its available land), few advanced capitalist economies requiring low shares of the estimated available land. Replication of the exercise to explore the land-use requirements associated with a transition to a 100% solar powered economy indicates this transition may be physically unfeasible for countries such as Japan and most of the EU-27 member states. Their vulnerability is aggravated when accounting for the electricity and final energy footprint, i.e., the net embodied energy in international trade. If current dynamics continue, emerging countries such as India might reach a similar situation in the future. Overall, our results indicate that the transition to renewable energies maintaining the current levels of energy consumption has the potential to create new vulnerabilities and/or reinforce existing ones in terms of energy and food security and biodiversity conservation.

Keywords: Solar potential; Energy footprint; Land-use; Transition to renewable energies; Energy security (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2017
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