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.
“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.
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.”
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.