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More Clean Energy on Less Land? This Report Reveals It's More Than Possible

For the United States to achieve 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and a net-zero carbon economy by 2050, renewable energy sources like solar and wind energy need to take up way less space. A recent report from the Nature Conservancy offers strategies to maximize clean energy advantages while minimizing land use.
By Gary E. Frank
A flock of sheep grazing on a solar farm - renewable energy

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are core to the energy transition as the U.S. looks to source 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and move to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The problem is, when compared with other available energy sources — including fossil fuels — wind and solar installations take up the most space.

A new report from the Nature Conservancy looks to address the problem with strategies and recommendations for energy planners that maximize the advantages of clean, renewable energy while minimizing land use. 

"Place-based" planning for renewable energy

Nels Johnson, senior practice advisor for renewable energy deployment at the conservancy, contrasts America's energy planning process with the elaborate planning system it uses for transportation projects. For example, many organizations, government agencies, and citizen groups collaborate on plans for roads, streets, and even bike paths that must meet certain criteria in order to get funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

“We don’t have anything like that in the United States for energy,” Johnson told TriplePundit. “We’re not suggesting it should be exactly like that, but it just shows how much planning goes into transportation compared to energy right now.”

Place-based planning in which all stakeholders play a role is necessary for decarbonization, limiting environmental and social impacts, and minimizing cost, according to the conservancy’s “Power of Place" report. Yet regional differences in resources, demographics, and land use and values make a one-size-fits-all approach impossible. 

The reasons for taking a regional approach are obvious, Johnson said. For example, offshore wind farms like the ones built in the Northeast won’t work on the plains of Nebraska or Kansas — although wind is a significant source of clean energy in those areas. Likewise, the options for shifting to solar energy in the Great Plains are more limited than they are in southern U.S. states.

Clean power's land problem 

Reaching a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 will require the nation to bring between 3,100 and 3,500 gigawatts of wind and solar generation capacity online, according to the report. Developing that much wind and solar infrastructure the way it’s typically done now would require more land than the state of Texas. 

“When we have that much area needed to accommodate the project sizes for wind projects, for solar projects, for new transmission lines, we’re bound to have potential impacts to things that we care about,” Johnson told 3p. “Another challenge is that where we can put stuff isn’t totally a free choice. We're constrained by where transmission is [and] where utility substations are. And those determine where we can put that wind [and] that solar unless we build new transmission lines, which has been very difficult to do.”

On top of that, under current practices there is little or no spatial planning to balance new clean energy infrastructure with other local needs like housing, agriculture, industry and ecosystem health, Johnson said. The Nature Conservancy has an online tool called Site Renewables Right to help developers or energy buyers know what’s in every single acre in the U.S. in terms of the potential environmental impact, which can help with balancing the push for more renewables with local land needs. 

Agrivoltaics: A major tool for using less land while installing more solar 

One option for reducing the impact of clean energy development is the expanded use of agrivoltaics, a practice that integrates solar energy generation and agriculture on the same plot of land. 

“Agrivoltaics has become quite a buzzword recently, and that’s a good thing,” said Nathan Cummins, Great Plains Division renewable energy programs director at the Nature Conservancy. “I think everyone’s starting to realize how much space we are going to need for this transition and the opportunity that can happen when we think about creative ways to deploy renewable energy that’s not just focused on getting clean energy, but focused on getting the best outcomes for communities, for conservation and for the environment.”

Agrivoltaics has been in use for some time now and is most commonly seen across the central U.S., Cummins said. “There’s always been a strong partnership between the agricultural sector and the renewable energy sector,” he told us. 

Though data indicates the practice is compatible with most fruit and vegetable production, there are still knowledge gaps, Johnson said. 

“What’s not known is how compatible agrovoltaics could be with large-scale grazing, for example, or with wheat or other crops that, at least theoretically and in research context, looks like it could really work,” he explained. “Once we unlock some of that information and get some practical experience, that could really show greater potential than our study showed in ‘Power of Place.’”

Even so, evidence shows significant opportunities for agrivoltaics in land sharing, making solar panels more efficient, and reducing the amount of water some crops use, Cummins said.

The bottom line

In its report, the conservancy does not shy away from saying there will be some increased costs for creating clean energy infrastructure, Johnson said. But greater use of agrivoltaics and other creative systems could spark innovation and provide incentives that help offset additional costs.

Large-scale corporate buyers of clean energy are helping to spur the development of the energy market, Cummins said. And they have an opportunity to be at the forefront of thinking about renewables differently.

“The Clean Energy Buyers Association estimates that about 42 percent of all large-scale renewable energy projects in the United States have been developed due to corporate demand [since 2014],” Cummins said. “These corporate buyers are your Googles, your Amazons, even new upstart companies like Rivian, et cetera, that are working to buy clean energy at a big scale. It's a way for a company to meet their broad ESG [environmental, social and governance] goals, beyond just the E.”

Image credit: Vincent Delsuc/Pexels

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

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