Energy transition: The land use conundrum

by Judith Curry

Does our future hold a plethora of wind turbines, solar farms, and transmission lines covering an ever-growing fraction of the planet’s surface as energy demand increases?  The output of farmland and forests being burned to provide power?

The amount of land required for renewable energy is an issue of growing concern that has received surprisingly little attention.  The current global energy system exists on a relatively small land footprint (only 0.4 percent of ice-free land), which is two orders of magnitude less than the area utilized by agriculture.[i] Plans for an entirely renewable energy system for the globe will very substantially increase the amount of land use for energy production, particularly with growing energy consumption and the widespread electrification of heating, transportation and industry.

The land footprint of energy systems displaces natural ecosystems, leads to land degradation, and creates trade-offs for food production, urban development, and conservation. In densely populated countries such as Japan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, South Korea, India, Netherlands, Belgium, Bahrain and Israel, there simply isn’t sufficient land to support a majority of the energy supply coming from renewables.  Emerging economies face larger challenges with more dynamic land use in the face of urbanization, industrialization and agriculture.

A recent article calculated the land-use intensity of energy (LUIE) from actual data for all major sources of electricity.

Land-Use Intensity of Electricity Production and Tomorrow’s Energy Landscape

by Jessical Lovering, Marian Swain, Linus Blomqvist, Rebecca Hernandez


Abstract.  The global energy system has a relatively small land footprint at present, comprising just 0.4% of ice-free land. This pales in comparison to agricultural land use– 30–38% of ice-free land–yet future low-carbon energy systems that shift to more extensive technologies could dramatically alter landscapes around the globe. The challenge is more acute given the projected doubling of global energy consumption by 2050 and widespread electrification of transportation and industry. Yet unlike greenhouse gas emissions, land use intensity of energy has been rarely studied in a rigorous way. Here we calculate land-use intensity of energy (LUIE) for real-world sites across all major sources of electricity, integrating data from published literature, databases, and original data collection. We find a range of LUIE that span four orders of magnitude, from nuclear with 7.1 ha/TWh/y to dedicated biomass at 58,000 ha/TWh/y. By applying these LUIE results to the future electricity portfolios of ten energy scenarios, we conclude that land use could become a significant constraint on deep decarbonization of the power system, yet low-carbon, land-efficient options are available.

The calculated LUIE values include both land used for actual energy generation as well as land used for fuel sourcing.  The study found a range of LUIE values that spanned 4 orders of magnitude, from the lowest value for nuclear to the highest value for dedicated biomass.  Relative to the LUIE value for natural gas, the sources with lower values of LUIE are nuclear, geothermal, rooftop solar and residue biomass.  Evaluating the LUIE for wind power is complicated the fact that the land footprint of an individual wind turbine is relatively small; however, the overall footprint of a wind farm is not just the sum of the land footprints of individual turbines, but rather the area within the perimeter of the wind farm.  Wind turbines that are built on degraded, contaminated, otherwise unusable land or on top of agricultural land aren’t competing with other uses for that land and don’t unduly interfere with surface ecosystems.  The problem is that such locations are far from population centers where the bulk of the energy is needed.  Offshore wind helps with the land use issue (although there are competing uses of coastal waters) and also places wind farms in closer proximity to coastal population centers.

The land-use implications of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for fossil- or biomass-fueled power plants were estimated to increase the land use footprint by 40 percent compared to a plant without CCS.

In the US, the onshore wind industry is facing challenges from rural landowners who don’t want wind turbines nearby – they are concerned about noise, declining property values and destruction of views.  Over the past eight years, 328 wind farm proposals have been rejected in the US. Transmission and renewable energy projects are being blocked across the country by landowners, consumer and environmental groups.

NIMBY-ism at its finest.  And the U.S. is a country with relatively low population density overall, although there are regions, mostly along the coasts, with very high population density


Mistaken ideas about carbon accounting, political pressures and short-sighted economics are perpetuating the use of biofuels. Biofuels have played a major role in global food crises in 2008, 2011 and 2022.  In 2022, global food insecurity hit record highs. Nevertheless, approximately 10 percent of the world’s grains are being turned into biofuels. Palm and soy oil from Indonesia and South America are also being burned for fuel and it is estimated that 58 percent of rapeseed oil in Europe is burned for fuel, despite soaring prices for cooking oil.  The European Union plans to allocate one-fifth of Europe’s cropland to producing fuels for bioenergy and also plans a four-fold increase of wood imports to burn for energy equivalent to approximately 40 percent of Canada’s (the world’s largest exporter) annual wood harvest.

The US uses about 40 percent of its annual corn crop grown on tens of millions of acres of cropland for ethanol that comprises only about 10 percent US transportation fuel.  It has been estimated that the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of ethanol are no less than those of gasoline, and likely greater.  Corn ethanol has exacerbated environmental problems such as soil erosion and poor water quality, contributing to the degradation of agricultural land that would be more importantly used for food production. If the crops for biofuels are irrigated, this can exacerbate water supply issues during droughts. The net effect of biofuels is lifecycle emissions that can be worse than the displaced fossil fuels, exacerbated food shortages and degraded farmland.


It is viable and affordable to take wind and solar to about 30 percent of a power system, but unless there is hydropower backup, energy storage or remote transmission capability, the cost profile for additional wind and solar becomes increasingly unfavorable and there are increasingly adverse consequences for electric power system reliability and performance.

Wind farms are a viable solution where land and coastal use considerations permit.  Rooftop solar is a good solution and supports some level of local autonomy.  However, wind and solar will probably become less competitive as new and better technologies become available in the coming decades.  I don’t see a role for biofuels in the future, where other power sources are available.

In the coming decades, I suspect that land use issues will become more important than CO2 emissions in determining the sources of electric power.

via Climate Etc.

August 31, 2022 at 11:41AM

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