Climate Change

Energy Sprawl is the Largest Driver of Land Use Change in the U.S.

September 8, 2016

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All forms of energy – like those pictured above: hydraulic fracturing, biofuels, mountain top removal and wind -- have significant land use impacts across the U.S.
All forms of energy – like those pictured above: hydraulic fracturing, biofuels, mountain top removal and wind -- have significant land use impacts across the U.S.

Research Update from the NatureNet Science Fellows

According to a new paper out today in PLOS ONE, energy sprawl – the development of new land area required for energy production – is, and will likely continue to be, the largest driver of land use change in the United States for the foreseeable future.

“Most people recognize that air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions are a significant problem associated with energy development. But the challenges associated with the land use of future energy development are less appreciated,” says lead author Anne Trainor, who undertook this research as part of her Conservancy NatureNet Science Fellowship at Yale University.

“Improved siting, energy conservation, and more end-use energy production like rooftop solar,” says Trainor, “are needed to allow us to switch to low-carbon energy production while avoiding impacts to natural areas that support wildlife and benefit people.”

These are high-stakes decisions: Land conversion causes significant habitat loss and fragmentation, which is the leading driver of species extinction. It also contributes to climate change when vegetation is lost and soils are disturbed. And it can trigger cascading negative effects on water and air quality, soil health, and other ecosystem services.

Just How Big is the Challenge?

Using several scenarios from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the paper, Energy Sprawl is the Largest Driver of Land Use Change in the United States, quantifies the amount of new land area that will be needed to meet the country’s energy needs between now and 2040 (where new land area is defined as area not currently used for energy production).

The analysis estimates the amount of land required to produce each terawatt hour of energy, considering both the direct effects and the wider landscape effects of renewable and non-renewable energy sources. The estimates account for the increasing rate of energy production and for the new development required to maintain production in the face of depletion of existing mines and wells.

In every EIA scenario evaluated, more than 800,000 additional km2 of America’s land area could be affected by energy development by 2040. To put that number into perspective, it’s the equivalent of the entire state of Texas – from Amarillo to Brownsville, El Paso to Houston with a little bit left over.

New land area impacted from energy development in the United States between 2007 and 2011 (top bars) and between 2012 and 2040 under four EIA scenarios. The left panel shows the direct footprint and the right panel shows landscape impacts, as defined in the text.
New land area impacted from energy development in the United States between 2007 and 2011 (top bars) and between 2012 and 2040 under four EIA scenarios. The left panel shows the direct footprint and the right panel shows landscape impacts, as defined in the text.

“This is also the first analysis to take into account the ongoing and projected unconventional oil and gas development made possible by recent technological advances, like hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling,” says Joe Fargione, director of science for the Conservancy’s North America region and an author on the paper. “This is important because by 2040, unconventional gas production in the United States is expected to double and will account for nearly 85 percent of all US natural gas production.”

Because of technological advances, it is now economically feasible to extract energy from places that were once considered unprofitable. This means that many areas previously unsuitable for oil and gas development – as much as 1.3 million km2 – are now at risk. Renewable energy also often targets places previously considered unsuitable for energy development, including many undeveloped areas that provide important wildlife habitat.

If you’re saving energy, you’re saving land.

Anne Trainor @AnneMTrainor

For example, mountain tops and rangelands are increasingly explored for their wind energy potential and deserts are attracting solar development. When considering a single year, renewables tap energy sources that are much more diffuse and therefore require more land than fossil fuels to produce the same amount of energy.

However, because renewables can re-use the same land every year, they produce a different kind of energy sprawl than fossil fuels, which must continually expand as mines are depleted and wells dry up. This means that, over several decades, renewables become more efficient than other types of energy production. And renewables have the additional advantage of being more climate-friendly than fossil fuel-based energy.

A notable exception to this is biofuels. When produced from dedicated energy crops, the land use efficiency of biofuels is significantly lower than that of oil production. This finding, says Fargione, “suggests that fuel cell and electric vehicles powered by wind, solar or nuclear would not only have lower greenhouse gas emissions, but also lower land use impact than biofuels.”

New Technologies and Old Fashioned Energy Conservation Can Help Avoid Energy Sprawl

There is no single solution to our energy development challenge. Meeting energy demands without exacerbating climate change and while conserving nature will require making smarter decisions on several fronts, including energy conservation, development of new technologies, more end-use production (e.g. rooftop solar), and thoughtful planning for siting and mitigation of future development.

“All forms of energy production,” says Fargione, “can have significant land use impacts. Simply dictating particular forms of energy production is inadequate. We also need to leverage our existing infrastructure and prioritize energy conservation to curtail energy sprawl.”

Table
Avoided km2 of energy sprawl from 1 percent energy conservation

For example, new land use impacts can be avoided when siting new energy infrastructure makes use of areas that are already developed, such as wind turbines in crop fields, when pipelines and transmission lines share existing right of ways, and when a greater number of oil and gas wells are placed on a single well-pad.

Solar panels on buildings and homes and similar efforts to produce energy within the built environment increase energy production without requiring conversion of natural areas. Several of the Conservancy’s NatureNet Science Fellows are working to develop nanotechnology-based clean energy sources, such as waste-heat recovery and the ability to dramatically shrink the land and energy use required for the production of clean biofuels from algae.

Given EIA’s projected mix of energy between now and 2040, energy conservation offers significant benefits:

  • Every 1 mpg increase in the average fuel efficiency of vehicles in the U.S. means 10,000 km2 of land won’t need to be converted for energy production.
  • Simple household electricity savings (read: compact fluorescent bulbs) would save roughly 2.5 percent of total use electricity use, which adds up to 14,000 km2 less land conversion for energy by 2040.

“In the end, it’s pretty simple,” says Trainor. “If you’re saving energy, you’re saving land.”

NatureNet Science Fellow Anne M. Trainor completed her fellowship at Yale University in 2015, and is now the director of smart development for The Nature Conservancy in Africa.

Photo credits above (from left to right) © Kent Mason © Carlton Ward, Jr. © Kent Mason © Jim Richardson
Cara Byington

Cara Byington is a science writer for The Nature Conservancy covering the work of Conservancy scientists and partners, including the NatureNet Fellows for Cool Green Science. A misplaced Floridian living in Maryland, she is especially fond of any story assignment involving boats and islands, and when not working, can be found hiking, kayaking or traveling with her family and friends. Best birds (so far) in 2016: Burrowing Owl (TX, February) Swallow-Tailed Kite (FL, March), Golden Eagle & White-Tailed Kite (CA, May) More from Cara

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3 comments

  1. How misleading, showing a big picture of a wind farm under the headline, when the largest impacts are from natural gas and biofuels?

    1. Hi Jarod — thanks for taking the time to write. Your point is well taken and I have changed the image. I spoke with Anne Trainor (lead author on the Energy Sprawl paper) about it, and she agreed that the original image was misleading.

      You are absolutely correct that biofuels would have the biggest footprint.

      I have now adjusted the top image to do (hopefully) a better job of illustrating the different types of energy development that are discussed in the paper, and why understanding all of their footprints and potential footprints is important.

      As Joe Fargione notes in the article, “All forms of energy production can have significant land use impacts. Simply dictating particular forms of energy production is inadequate. We also need to leverage our existing infrastructure and prioritize energy conservation to curtail energy sprawl.”

      Thanks again for your comment~
      Cara

  2. Hi!! I read recently that there are “endless” areas of blight, miles of out of business factories, shopping malls and along the freeways!!! Wind Mills could also be strategically placed throughout most of the vast shopping centers.
    I am a member of darksky.org
    Light pollution could be significantly reduced saving energy and money by discouraging unnecessary use. Far too many homes and businesses have excessive landscape lighting, flood lights on signs and sides of buildings. An average acceptable energy use range based on property size and square footage of homes and buildings. Rebates for use at or below average low range and higher tax for use above the high end of the range.
    Community programs with money savings on products for efficiency and and tax incentives for improvements are difficult to navigate, only apply if you follow the stipulations, are unaffordable for most are not advertised properly.
    More efficient, smaller scale and new invention energy systems will be accomplished.