Land use: Solar Power Vs. Coal Fired Electricity Generation

The anti-solar lobby sometimes argues that solar farms take up far more space than coal-fired power generation facilities – but do they really?
Ted Nace, writing for Grist, points out that unlike the sunshine that provides fuel for solar farms, “coal does not fall from the sky”. It has to be literally ripped from the land – and a lot of it.
Based on current mining techniques, Mr. Nace says a solar thermal plant can produce 18 gigawatt hours per acre of land over a 60 year period; whereas a coal-fired power plant will generate 15 gigawatt hours per acre of mined land . This does not take into account the space required for toxic by-products such as fly ash. Compared to solar thermal, the land footprint of coal is about 20 percent greater.
Nace,  who is also the director of a collaborative coal information clearinghouse that includes a section dedicated to Australia’s coal industry, acknowledges that as much as 6 million acres of solar thermal farms would be required to replace all coal fired power production in the USA. However, he says continuing coal use would require 7 million acres over the next 60 years. While mining companies are obligated to perform restorative work after exhausting an area of coal, Nace says that this rarely occurs.
Another option that requires no extra land whatsoever is to better utilise the sea of rooftops in our cities and towns; using solar panels. Rooftop solar power systems not only create a distributed power generation network, but also reduce the need for transmission infrastructure, the major culprit behind skyrocketing electricity prices. Furthermore, rooftop solar tackles the 7 – 10% line loss that accompanies electricity generation when it occurs a long distance from the point of consumption.
Carbon emissions, toxic fly ash, mercury, lead, arsenic, nitrous oxide and sulphur dioxide byproducts, the poisoning of streams and land degradation on an incredible scale are some of the many negative impacts using coal has. Add the unsustainable massive subsidisation of the fossil fuel that keeps clean, renewable energy alternatives out of reach of many and impacts on funding for other critical services and it becomes increasingly clear why coal fired power generation needs to go the way of the dinosaurs – and soon.