• Home
  • News
  • Insight & Opinion
  • No threat to farmland says ANU: just 1,200 square kilometres can fulfil Australia’s solar and wind energy needs
You are viewing an article that is not currently active

No threat to farmland says ANU: just 1,200 square kilometres can fulfil Australia’s solar and wind energy needs

May 22, 2024

As Australia’s rapid renewable energy rollout progresses, the debate over land use intensifies. Some politicians[i] argue that regional areas have reached a “saturation point” and cannot accommodate more wind and solar farms and transmission lines.

In contrast, Farmers for Climate Action has welcomed the Federal Government’s $1 billion fund to grow Australia’s solar panel industry[ii]. Moreover, Professor Andrew Blakers from the College of Engineering, Computing, and Cybernetics at the Australian National University (ANU) states that the shift to renewable energy can provide farmers with additional income streams[iii].

“So how much land is needed to fully decarbonise energy in Australia? When we switch completely to solar and wind, do we have the space for all the panels, turbines and power lines?” Professor Blakers said. “I’ve done the sums. All we need is 1,200 square kilometres. That’s not much. The area devoted to agriculture is about 3,500 times larger at 4.2 million square kilometres. The area of land that would be taken away from agriculture works out at about 45 square metres per person – about the size of a large living room.

“We can ditch fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse emissions with negligible impact on agriculture. And in many cases, farmers can be paid for hosting renewable energy infrastructure while continuing to run sheep and cows or grow crops.”

The growth of solar and wind

Virtually all new electricity generation capacity in Australia over the past decade has been in solar and wind. Professor Blakers argues that together, solar and wind have risen from about 6% of electricity generation in 2014 to 33% today. Solar and wind provide the cheapest electricity.

“Most solar power in Australia today comes from rooftop solar panels. These panels don’t require any extra land. But the area of rooftop is limited. In coming years, ground-mounted solar farms will become ever more important,” he said.

“We’ll also need more wind farms. Each wind farm contains dozens of turbines and spans dozens of square kilometres. But only a small fraction of the land is lost to farming.”

Blakers suggests distributing solar and wind farms across the settled areas of Australia to minimise the impact of local cloud cover and wind lulls. Most solar and wind farms are situated on sheep and cattle farms inland from the Great Dividing Range, where there is ample sun and wind. Additionally, these locations are close enough to cities to transmit electricity efficiently via high-voltage power lines.

So how much land is required? 

According to Professor Blakers, typically, only about 1% of land covered by a wind farm is lost to farming. “In most cases, farmers run livestock or continue cropping around the turbine towers and access roads.”

Similarly, because solar panels are spaced apart, the area spanned by a solar farm is often two to three times the actual area of the panels themselves. Professor Blakers says, “The panels are typically spaced to avoid losses from shading. As an added bonus, it means rain and sunlight can fall between them, allowing grass to grow and livestock to graze and shelter.”

Professor Blakers calculates that about 10,000km of new transmission lines will also be required for the energy transition. “This sounds like a lot but amounts to just 37 centimetres per person.

“Again, the area of land that would be taken away from agriculture for wind turbine towers and access roads is relatively small.

“A further small area of land will be dedicated to new storage such as pumped hydro power and batteries.”

The combined area covered by solar farms, wind farms, and associated infrastructure spans about 22,000 square kilometres, primarily consisting of the land between turbines in wind farms. However, Professor Blakers notes that agriculture can largely continue as usual on most of this land.

“By my calculations, the total area taken away from agriculture to power a 100% renewable energy (zero fossil fuel) economy is about 45 square metres per person. 

“Considering Australia’s total population of 27 million people, that means the total land area required is 1,200 square km. The area currently devoted to agriculture is about 3,500 times larger than this.”

Farmers can earn extra income

Mining companies are often permitted to mine land without the consent of the landowner. Yet solar and wind farm developers do not have the same rights. They must agree on lease fees with landowners before gaining access to land. Professor Blakers says, “These fees are typically tens of thousands of dollars per year per turbine.

“In the case of transmission lines, hosts in Victoria are paid A$200,000 per kilometre over eight years.”

Contact your local Raine & Horne Rural estate agent today if you’re considering listing a rural property.

[i] https://energycentral.com/news/australias-solar-wind-energy-needs-no-threat-farmland
[ii] https://farmersforclimateaction.org.au/blog/2024/03/28/farmers-welcome-investment-in-local-solar-manufacturing/
[iii] https://iceds.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/no-threat-farm-land-just-1200-square-kilometres-can-fulfil-australia%E2%80%99s-solar-and