Letter | Published:

Efficient use of land to meet sustainable energy needs

Nature Climate Change volume 5, pages 353358 (2015) | Download Citation


The deployment of renewable energy systems, such as solar energy, to achieve universal access to electricity, heat and transportation, and to mitigate climate change is arguably the most exigent challenge facing humans today1,2,3,4. However, the goal of rapidly developing solar energy systems is complicated by land and environmental constraints, increasing uncertainty about the future of the global energy landscape5,6,7. Here, we test the hypothesis that land, energy and environmental compatibility can be achieved with small- and utility-scale solar energy within existing developed areas in the state of California (USA), a global solar energy hotspot. We found that the quantity of accessible energy potentially produced from photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP) within the built environment (‘compatible’) exceeds current statewide demand. We identify additional sites beyond the built environment (‘potentially compatible’) that further augment this potential. Areas for small- and utility-scale solar energy development within the built environment comprise 11,000–15,000 and 6,000 TWh yr−1 of PV and CSP generation-based potential, respectively, and could meet the state of California’s energy consumptive demand three to five times over. Solar energy within the built environment may be an overlooked opportunity for meeting sustainable energy needs in places with land and environmental constraints.

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The McGee Research Grant of Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences, the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, the Jean Langenheim Research Fellowship of Graduate Women in Science Society, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s William Randolph Hearst Fund Scholarship, and the Vice Provost Office of Graduate Education’s Diversifying Academia, Recruiting Excellence Program provided financial support for this study. We thank M. Tavassoli who contributed to the data collection and N. Alvarez who assisted with several spatial analyses. We thank L. White who contributed to graphic design.

Author information


  1. Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford, California 94035, USA

    • Rebecca R. Hernandez
    • , Madison K. Hoffacker
    •  & Christopher B. Field
  2. Department of Environmental Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA

    • Rebecca R. Hernandez
    • , Madison K. Hoffacker
    •  & Christopher B. Field


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R.R.H. conceived the project, R.R.H. developed the model, R.R.H. and M.K.H. conducted analyses and model runs, and R.R.H., M.K.H. and C.B.F. wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rebecca R. Hernandez.

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