I opened my apartment door Thursday morning to find a front-page article in the Washington Post that referenced Nature Conservancy work I’ve done. The piece, entitled “Renewable Energy’s Environmental Paradox,” looked at some of the potential damage to natural habitat from the expansion of renewable energy. It references a Nature Conservancy report, currently in review at the journal PLoS One, that quantifies what I and the other report authors are calling “energy sprawl.”

Here’s the question we tried to answer: How much new land will be needed for energy production in 2030 under different kinds of U.S. climate and energy policy scenarios?

Without giving away too much detail (since the manuscript’s still in review), the answer is that, under current law, the United States is due for at least 200,000 square kilometers of new development for energy…the mind-blowing figure cited in the Post piece.

For reference, if you were to push all that development together, it’s about the size of Minnesota. The vast majority of that development is not for making electricity at all, but is biofuel production mandated under the Renewable Fuel Standard provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

But one aspect missed by the Post piece was how much work the Conservancy is doing to not just quantify the potential habitat impact of renewables (the doom-and-gloom stuff), but to find pragmatic solutions that will minimize the biodiversity impact of it’s citing (the yes-we-can stuff).

For instance, in California, we’re working with the state to allow solar power production to go forward in the Mojave desert in a way that avoids sensitive ecosystems.

And in Wyoming and Montana, we are working in a similar way with oil and gas development. Joe Kiesecker and Bruce McKinney of the Conservancy call this “Development by Design,” and are creating a conceptual way to think about the problem:

  • First you plan energy development, so you avoid hurting particularly sensitive species or habitats.
  • Then, where development will occur, you minimize the spatial footprint of development, limiting environmental damage there as much as possible.
  • Finally, whatever environmental damage does occur can be offset to some extent by encouraging those doing the development to pair it with conservation action to protect other parcels of land.

The article in the Post also talks of an “environmental paradox,” and emphasizes the tension between meeting the urgent challenge of climate change and dealing with the environmental challenge of siting all this new renewable energy development.

All I can say is that, from my perspective, there is actually startling agreement among the conservation community on how to proceed with this.

Every single major environmental NGO recognizes that climate change is a preeminent concern. We all recognize that some new renewable energy development is needed to help the country transition to a less carbon-intensive energy system, although there’s also a big push to maximize energy conservation as much as possible to make the task easier. It is a tribute to the seriousness of climate change that the major conservation groups are taking a pragmatic view, and are trying to make sure renewable energy development happens the right way, rather than just blindly fighting it because of its habitat effects.

It is not a paradox, just a trade-off: Renewable energy takes more space to produce than fossil-fuel energy, and society needs to think carefully about how best to meet that challenge.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. “Development by Design” is not a new concept. It has been carried out by numerous private, public, and not-for-profit entities as well as their consultants for as long as the Clean Water Act, NEPA, Endangered Species Act, and other similar legislation have been on the books. TNC’s approach, however, is unique in that it takes the landscape approach, is not bound by political jurisdictions, is focused on species and ecological systems not otherwise “protected” by law, and provides real solutions to species conservation by being proactive, rather than reactive. I think a sharing of information and approaches between those involved in “traditional” mitigation and TNC and other NGOs would be beneficial to both, especially with the prospect of intensive new renewable energy development within sensitive environments.

  2. One of President Obama’s key objectives, this first term, is clean air and reduced dependence on foreign energy imports. Biofuels and massive wind farms are not the answer. Too expensive. Would have to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to accomplish a tiny increase in “renewable energy sources…or would have to run the printing presses at the Treasury non-stop!

    Let me suggest an alternative:
    · An adjustable oil and natural gas import tax…this would have OPEC on their knees begging us to buy their oil at $20 a barrel within 4 months
    · Reduce the national speed limit to 55 mph
    · Remove permitting obstacles to all new US toll roads
    · Remove all governments and labor unions from all mass transit in the US…let the private sector do faster, better, safer and cheaper
    · Expedite licensing of new nuclear power plants…think about all the truly good paying jobs involved here…nuclear power is our cleanest energy source
    · Quickly proceed with permits for the newly discovered oil and gas fields in the Gulf of Mexico and in North Dakota (horizontal drilling)
    · Remove permitting obstacles to new natural gas lines
    · Remove any import taxes and/or regulations to the new turbo diesel VW Jetta TDI, that gets ….are you ready…58 mpg!!!

    Mr. President: forget about biofuels and wind farms…they are dead end streets. Furthermore, the above listed alternatives would cost the government nothing! Just step aside and let the private sector do it cheaper and better. And we would not have to borrow a penny for these projects! Private capital would rush into these projects!

    You want clean air, good paying jobs and less dependence on foreign energy supplies, why here is your answer!

  3. Rob:

    I found the report at Plos One. It is a well referenced piece of work and I congratulate you and your co-authors.

    After reading it, I did have a question about your methodology – did you do a new computation for the land use intensity of nuclear or did you simply use figures from one of your referenced studies? The section in your paper titled “Calculating area requirements” provides some details on the computations for all other energy options, but none on nuclear.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast

  4. Thank you for pushing discussion of the land impacts of energy systems,which in general has received too little serious attention. As a land-use professional (and co-author of Sustainable Landscape Construction, Island Press, 2nd Ed 2007) I am very concerned about the fact that so much priority is being given to building a “better” grid. The grid, except on a local scale where population density warrants it, is itself one of the biggest energy-wasting technologies (10% in transmission losses alone, even by industry estimates). It also has ancillary problems that fall squrely under Sprawl: it locks us into centralization of energy production, and evironmental impact issues that increase with scale; the infrastructure easements, usually a minimum of 75 feet wide and cleared of any canopy vegetation, consume land, cut across country, and by removing vegetative cover contirbute significantly to global cloimate change, CO2 release, and localized drought; the construction materials, embodied energy, and maintenance travel required for a longdistance grid system are significant; and the vulnerability to service disruption is serious. By contrast, distributed energy systems can be mounted on buildings, almost all of which have existing access roads; maitenance travel can occur on existing routes; new towers, wires, etc are mostly eliminated because existing structures (rooftops, usually) are used as supports; and by virtue of being distributed, the system as a whole becomes very difficult to bring down by attack or because of weather disaster. The user density at which a local grid becomes truly efficient if all life-cycle costs are taken into account is certainly quantifiable and could be simulated using complexity modelling. However, utilities are heavily invested in the existing grid. Real distributed production would free their captive customer base and prevent Enron-style “energy-bellies” trading. Thus, our alternatives are all being funnelled through the grid. No amount of electronic “smarts” can make up fo the land impacts of long-distance grid transmission.

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