Research Press Release

Environment: Global solar panel inventory illuminates hidden facilities


October 28, 2021

A comprehensive inventory of photovoltaic solar energy generating units around the world identifies over 400% more facilities than reported by previous datasets. The catalogue, published in Nature this week, could inform efforts to deliver solar energy in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Detailed information about photovoltaic solar energy generating units is needed to manage trade-offs between climate change mitigation and the environmental and economic impacts of land use changes associated with the deployment of these units. Currently available inventories of solar generating capacity are insufficient; for example, they may have limited geographical coverage or are not publically available for the research community. Lucas Kruitwagen and colleagues combine satellite imagery and machine learning to generate a detailed catalogue of the world’s solar energy facilities. Specifically, they look at non-residential units, focussing on commercial-, industrial-, and utility-scale photovoltaic solar energy generation stations.

The authors identify 68,661 facilities, an increase of 432% on the previous best estimate. They calculate that these facilities had the potential to generate around 423 gigawatts of energy at the end of 2018. Compared with the previous best inventory, the latest dataset identifies 18,449 new installations in China, 9,906 in Japan, 4,525 in the USA, 2,021 in India, and 17,918 in the European Economic Area. Land cover assessments reveal that most facilities are located on croplands, followed by aridlands and grasslands. This finding highlights the trade-offs between climate change mitigation (through the deployment of renewable energy systems), biodiversity and ecosystem health, conservation and land protection, and food production.


Return to research highlights

PrivacyMark System