The Lessons I’ve Learned From ‘Energy Sprawl’


Scientists want their research to inspire serious discussion of critical issues. So I’ve been encouraged by all the discussion in the press about the recent PLoS One paper I wrote with colleagues entitled “Energy Sprawl or Energy Efficiency: Climate Policy Impacts on Natural Habitat for the United States of America.”

Still, it’s unsettling sometimes to see the rhetorical uses others have found for this research, often far from its original context in a scientific journal.

The most recent example of this was Senator Lamar Alexander’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning, which discussed the potential problems from energy sprawl and proposed his particular solution. Rather than respond directly to Senator Alexander or others talking about energy sprawl, I think I’ll simply tell you what I have learned personally from the energy sprawl paper and the media response to it.

First, climate change is the big threat to America’s wildlife (and to our communities). Severe climate change has the potential to imperil many more species than energy sprawl.

Moreover, we show in our paper that most of the energy sprawl from now to 2030 will happen regardless of whether or not there is a comprehensive climate bill. By far the largest amount of energy sprawl will come from biofuel production, driven by the renewable fuel standard and other laws already in place.

I’ve learned that when I talk about energy sprawl I need to keep reminding folks of this simple reality: energy sprawl concerns should not be an excuse for inaction on climate change, although land-use impacts should be one of things thought about while crafting climate change legislation.

Another lesson I have learned is that while nuanced argument is normal in a scientific publication, it tends to get simplified in the public debate. For instance, the energy sprawl report should not be taken as an endorsement of nuclear power by The Nature Conservancy.

On this one metric, nuclear power does have a small spatial footprint, as do several other technologies such as geothermal. But there are lots of other metrics policymakers must think about when they are comparing technologies, such as cost effectiveness, job creation, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy independence. With nuclear power, there are significant issues related to water use and the safe isolation of waste for millennia. Since our report didn’t consider all those different types of impacts, it shouldn’t be taken as a comment on the overall wisdom of increased nuclear power. That would take another and more thorough, report.

Similarly, the energy sprawl paper does not mean that The Nature Conservancy is somehow against renewable energy generation. We believe strongly that increased renewable energy production will have to be one of the ways America begins to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The energy sprawl report simply shows that renewable energy production has the potential to take a significant amount of space, particularly biofuel production.

However, many negative environmental impacts can be avoided through the proper siting of new energy development, an approach The Nature Conservancy calls Energy By Design: Avoid development when you can, minimize impacts when you can’t, and compensate for those impacts that cannot be avoided.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s recent efforts to permit some renewable energy development in appropriate places after thorough environmental review are an example of this philosophy in action, and show that energy sprawl is a challenge that can be overcome through proper management.

Most importantly, I’ve learned that I need to keep stressing energy efficiency. Energy efficiency could be the key way to combat energy sprawl. Saving energy saves land by avoiding future energy development that would have otherwise occurred. If implemented on a large scale, this could have a big impact. For instance, the recent report by McKinsey & Company found that more than 1,000 terawatt-hours of electricity could be conserved each year using existing technology, which would result in between 2.4 million and 8.4 million acres of avoided energy development.

So I say to everyone writing or blogging about energy sprawl: If you are concerned about energy sprawl, then fight for energy efficiency!

(Image credit: samantha celera/Flickr.)

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


  1. “Avoid development when you can, minimize impacts when you can’t, and compensate for those impacts that cannot be avoided.”

    I could not agree with you more. I feel as though the reduce component of being environmentally friendly is often overlooked. Simply using less would do a great deal for protecting the earth.

  2. I’m a lifetime member of TNC and love the work you all do. But this report is hugely misleading and damaging to effort to protect wild places.

    The dirty fossil fuel energy footprint is currently the entire planet. Not just the land surfaces but the oceans and even deep into the soils.

    You mention in the report that wind turbines have a negative effect far beyond their physical towers. OK, why does that not apply to coal power plants? The negative effect of the coal “sprawl” must include the damaged ecosystems worldwide from the littered eco-toxic emissions. Right?

    Do you include the dying coral reefs in the dirty energy footprint sprawl? How about the collapsing arctic ecosystems, melting boreal permafrost, fractured ice ecosystems, acidifying oceans, desertification, coastal inundation areas, warming rivers…the list goes on an on.

    The current American dirty energy sprawl includes an area bigger than the north american continent, including all the coastal waters. Getting this down to the size of just the state of Minnesota would be an amazing accomplishment.

    The special places the Nature Conservancy is trying to save need relief from our dirty energy sprawl that is destroying them already.

  3. Agree with you. Right now we are dealing with only two choices, either it’s habit change or climate change.

  4. There’s too much vagueness about the difference between Man’s fossil fuel “footprint” and the visceral physical effects on rural and wild landscapes from wind turbines and other land-hogging structures. Those towers and panels greatly increase the existing footprint from oil & gas drilling, mining, etc. The word “footprint” should be mainly used for what’s visible, and the term “side-effects” should apply to the rest. The two get interchanged and it muddies the whole issue.

    Cumulative physical impacts on the land keep getting trivialized by the wind turbine lobby. If your body is already scarred by bullets and acid burns, knife wounds aren’t suddenly “beautiful” (as people try to describe giant wind towers).

    The broad side effects of carbon pollution or AGW on species is different than the in-your-face aesthetic blight of 400-foot towers on ridges, or desert solar arrays that cover many square miles.

    Stick with one topic at a time. Man is destroying nature on many fronts and they don’t cancel each other out just because some projects have a “green” label. There is far too much political-correctness attached to this giant new surge of land development.

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