How much land will a renewable energy system use?

Transitioning to clean energy doesn’t have to use more land than our current fossil fuel-based energy system.

Wind farm in Turlock, CA

Renewable energy sources like solar panels and wind turbines take up a fair amount of space. Unsurprisingly then, one of the main concerns raised about the idea of transitioning to a fossil fuel-free, renewable energy-powered society has been land use. Can America build a clean energy future without covering the landscape with solar panels and wind turbines, becoming endlessly mired in local land use conflicts, or threatening special and ecologically vulnerable places?

It’s an important question. But while there are legitimate issues to be worked out, it is very easy to overstate the barrier that land use poses to the clean energy transition.

First, while renewable energy does take up land, so does the current energy system, primarily for land-intensive, low-value forms of energy, like ethanol.

Second, a clean energy future won’t necessarily use more land than the current system and might even use less. This is especially true if we reduce reliance on biofuels in the transition away from fossil fuels.

And third, there are many tools we can use – from energy efficiency and distributed forms of energy generation (such as solar panels) to the adoption of less energy-intensive lifestyles and tools to shape our demand for energy – that can reduce the amount of renewable energy capacity we need to build in order to meet the needs of society. 

Our current energy system uses a lot of land

According to a 2021 analysis by Bloomberg, the current energy system uses 74.5 million acres of land, an area slightly larger than the entirety of Arizona.[1] More than two-thirds of that – 51.5 million acres – is used to grow corn and soy for biofuels (primarily ethanol). Oil and gas pipelines occupy 4.8 million acres, and 3 million acres are covered by oil and gas drilling operations. Coal mining, transportation and waste storage, uranium mining, and fossil fuel and nuclear power plants together take up about another 1 million acres of land. Wind and solar power together take up just 570,000 acres.

Figure 1. Land use of the current U.S. energy system, via Bloomberg

 

Biofuels like ethanol are an enormously space inefficient energy source (the Bloomberg analysis notes they make up two-thirds of the footprint of the U.S. energy system but provide just 5% of the nation’s energy) and the claims that they are more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels are proving more and more dubious. Wind and solar, on the other hand, provided 13.1% of total U.S. electricity in 2021, while occupying less than 1% of the land area of the energy system.

A clean energy future won’t necessarily use more land, and might use less

So, what would it look like to actually transition entirely off of fossil fuels? Would it require covering the whole country in solar panels and wind turbines? In short: no.

In fact, such a transition might even shrink the footprint of the U.S. energy system, as two recent analyses demonstrate.

First, Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Project released a report in October 2021 about potential pathways to an energy system that emits no greenhouse gases on balance by 2050. In it, they find that the most aggressive scenario – with near total electrification of buildings, transportation and industry; no fossil fuel combustion; and wind, solar and geothermal providing 98% of electricity generation – would result in about 16.2 million acres of land being directly occupied by wind and solar installations (not counting, for example, the space between turbines or panels), plus an expansion of the transmission network. This scenario still uses a large amount of biofuels, which they project could occupy about 58.4 million acres of land. Together, however, that’s still about the same size as the current energy system, though the additional transmission capacity is not included in the estimate. 

The second study, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), examines pathways to achieving 100% clean electricity by 2035. NREL estimates that – for a system that uses no carbon capture, no fossil fuel combustion, and in which wind and solar make up 74% of electricity generation in 2035 – the total direct land use of wind, solar, and transmission is 14.3 million acres, plus 2.2 million acres of offshore wind (including the space between the offshore turbines). The NREL study is focused on electricity rather than all energy use, but it illustrates that renewable electricity production can have a much smaller land impact than many people realize.

There are some complications in comparing the land use of a clean energy future to that of the current energy system. For instance, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy will require an increase in mining for certain materials, but reliable estimates of the land use of this expansion are lacking. On the other hand, studies like the Net-Zero America analysis and articles like this one in Business Insider (which bases some estimates on the Net-Zero America analysis) emphasize the indirect “visual footprint” of renewable energy, or the area from which wind turbines and solar panels can be seen, which is much larger than the area of land they actually occupy. But both wind and solar farms can support multiple uses within the same land area – such as agricultural uses. And counting the area impacted visually by renewables – while at the same time failing to count the area affected by the visual, air pollution and noise impacts of oil and gas wells, pipelines, or coal mines – is comparing apples to oranges.

To summarize: while there are real siting constraints and considerations when building out a fully renewable energy system, studies suggest a zero-carbon energy system wouldn’t necessarily take up more land than the current energy system, and could take up less, especially if we can reduce reliance on biofuels.

Distributed energy and energy efficiency can further reduce land demand 

But the story doesn’t end there, because there are multiple ways to reduce the footprint of a 100% renewable energy system (or really, any energy system). In particular, distributed renewable energy generation – like rooftop solar, especially with battery energy storage – and improved energy efficiency could significantly reduce the amount of large-scale wind, solar, and transmission infrastructure the U.S. will have to build.

According to NREL, the U.S. has over 1,100 gigawatts (GW) of rooftop solar technical potential. The Net-Zero America and NREL analyses each include less than 17% of that potential in their respective future clean energy systems. Going big on rooftop solar would significantly reduce the land use of a future energy system, reducing the need for utility-scale generation infrastructure and transmission infrastructure. And the panels don’t have to be put only on people’s homes: big retail stores, warehouses and even parking lots could be important locations for distributed solar energy generation.

The two analyses, similarly, model less improvement in energy efficiency than is possible. While electrification and the transition to renewable energy improve efficiency in and of themselves by eliminating reliance on wasteful fossil fuel combustion, there are further opportunities to reduce energy use. For example, the NREL analysis specifies that it examines only “supply-side” options and notes that a similar report examining pathways to net-zero emissions economy-wide by 2050 included the possibility of much more energy efficiency (and slightly less electrification), leading to 21% lower demand for electricity and 16%-20% less generation capacity needed in 2035 than in NREL’s reference assumptions. Less demand for electricity and less generation capacity needed would mean less land is required to generate and transmit that electricity.

Finally, maximizing the use of other tools, like demand response and distributed energy storage, would also help mold energy demand to supply and reduce the amount of generation capacity needed for a 100% renewable energy system. Increasing the use of other conservation methods – like taking more trips by walking, biking or public transportation instead of by car, or  ordering and consuming less stuff in general – could reduce energy demand as well. And if wind and solar technologies continue to improve faster than expected, it may take less land than NREL and Net-Zero America modeled to provide the same amount of power. 

We should transition to renewable energy to reduce impacts on land, the climate and health

There are many good reasons for the world to transition away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy, from reductions in climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions to reduced impacts on the environment and our health. Parts of that transition will be complicated, from figuring out how to responsibly source the materials needed to build renewable energy infrastructure to navigating thorny conflicts over jurisdiction and the location of clean energy technology. But the message that a 100% renewable energy system requires ceding more of the country to energy production than we currently do is not correct. While every form of energy has an impact, the transition to renewable energy can – if handled correctly – reduce the extent, and especially the severity, of the impacts of our energy system on our land.


[1] The Bloomberg analysis reports 81 million acres of land use in the current energy system, with 7.2 million acres of wind and solar infrastructure. But 6.63 million acres of that is occupied indirectly by wind turbines (i.e., it is the space around and between the turbines) and is excluded here.

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Bryn Huxley-Reicher

Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.

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