Monday, April 18, 2011

Energy and Land

Tragic events in Japan have recently reminded us that there are no easy answers in energy.  The world is consuming energy at a growing pace, and the negative effects of this trend are increasingly apparent. Beyond damaging human health and the environment, energy production has substantial effects on land.  A 2009 Nature Conservancy study attempted to quantify these impacts, estimating that biodiesel from soy is the worst culprit (with a land use impact of approximately 894 square kilometers of land impacted per terawatt-hour of electricity produced in 2030), followed by ethanol, wind, hydropower, petroleum, solar photovoltaic, natural gas, solar thermal, coal, geothermal, and nuclear power (in order of most to least land intensity).  The study estimated that nuclear power would require only 2.4 square kilometers of land per terawatt-hour produced in 2030, whereas natural gas would require 18.6 square kilometers, solar photovoltaic (which produces electricity directly from the sun) would require 36.9 square kilometers, petroleum would require 44.7, and wind would require 72.1. 

In 2010, Professor Sara Bronin published an article called "Curbing Energy Sprawl with Microgrids," which described Americans' growing thirst for energy and the land use impacts of energy production that had been estimated in the Nature Conservancy's report.  As a solution to habitat fragmentation and other problems associated with land-intensive energy production, Professor Bronin suggested that  the law should enable "microgrids" of distributed generation in urban neighborhoods.  Indeed, many small, distributed sources of energy, such as fuel cells, solar panels, and wind turbines, can be installed on existing infrastructure with minimal impacts on land.  Professor Uma Outka, in turn, has proposed that we more carefully and comprehensively investigate the land use impacts of energy and plan for energy production in a manner that minimizes these impacts.  In a forthcoming Stanford Environmental Law Review article, "The Renewable Energy Footprint," she suggests that  developers should locate large-scale renewable plants, wherever possible, on brownfields and other disturbed lands; in other words, where we can't avoid building more infrastructure through, for example, energy conservation or more efficient use of transmission lines, we should "reuse land." 

As Professor Outka describes in her article, some efforts at land reuse for renewable energy have begun.  The Bureau of Land Management, for example, has identified forty-two brownfield sites in Arizona that might be ideal areas for renewable development.  And at least one commercial wind farm--Steel Winds--is already operating on a brownfield site near Lake Erie. The Nature Conservancy, following its  "Energy Sprawl" report, also has produced a more optimistic follow-up report that suggests how the land impacts of energy--particularly those of renewable energy--can be reduced, similarly proposing that developers prioritize the use of brownfields and other lands that already have been disturbed.  The Nature Conservancy also has an interactive map that shows the average number of homes that could be powered annually by wind in each of the wind-intensive states and the species that could be protected if developers followed the Conservancy's suggested "smart siting" policies. Clicking on each state brings up a fun picture of the greater sage-grouse in addition to the data described above.  Speaking of interactive maps and energy, don't miss the new "FracFocus" website, where you can click on each state and identify the chemicals used in many hydraulically fractured oil and natural gas wells in that state; twenty-four industry members are now voluntarily disclosing the chemicals that they use. 

As concerns associated with energy risks rise, we must expand renewable energy production.  But all forms of energy production have some negative effects, and recent reports, maps, and articles remind us that we should address these effects in our quest toward cleaner, safer energy.

Hannah Wiseman

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