Low-carbon energy, land use and community planning

At Energy Collective, Jesse Jenkins looks at the land use impacts of three low-carbon energy sources: solar, wind and nuclear. On solar:

According to the MIT authors, powering 100 percent of estimated U.S. electricity demand in 2050 with solar energy would require roughly 33,000 square kilometers (sq-km) of land. That’s if we spread solar panels evenly across the entire country. If we concentrate solar production in the sunniest regions, the total land footprint falls to 12,000 sq-km.

Those sound like big numbers. On the one hand they are. Massachusetts (where I reside) spans about 27,000 sq-km, for comparison.

On the other hand, the United States apparently devotes about 10,000 sq-km of land just to golf courses. And as the infographic illustrates, it’s agriculture and forestry that truly drives humanity’s footprint on the natural landscape.

In reality, no one is calling for 100 percent solar energy. Even the most bullish renewable energy advocates typically envision solar providing less than half and usually no more than a quarter of U.S. electricity. (See: “Is There An Upper Limit to Variable Renewables”)

If solar provided one-third of Americans’ electricity, it would require just 4,000-11,000 sq-km.

In other words: with an area no larger than the amount of land currently devoted to golf courses, we could power a third of the country with solar energy.


The above is only assuming greenfield development. And wind:

Powering one-third of the country with wind farms would thus truly impact only on the order of 1,800 sq-km, of which only roughly 600 sq-km would be permanently removed from production.

That’s an almost trivially small amount of land, equal to only 6 percent of the land area wasted, er, devoted to golf in this country.

If well sited and co-located on already disturbed and productive agricultural lands, wind farms could thus fuel a sizeable fraction of America’s energy demand without expanding the human footprint on the land in any meaningful way, except aesthetically.

So, on a national scale, the potential land use impacts of really high proportions of renewable energy doesn’t look like a barrier. But most energy projects will have neighbors, and they may not like the look of solar panels, or the loss of borrowed views.

Additionally, putting solar near the busiest parts of the electrical grid, where it can have the most benefit, may conflict with local communities’ plans for future development. A solar farm will probably pay far less in property taxes than residential, commercial or industrial development.

Both of these local conflicts may mean that a significant portion of future solar needs to be co-located with buildings (on the roof), parking lots and other developed areas to minimize land use conflicts and/or reduce transmission costs.