Have you noticed the rapid proliferation of clean energy projects in the past few years? All those projects take up land. Now a paper from the Nature Conservancy predicts that the Waxman-Markey climate change bill could have the unintended consequence of leading to “energy sprawl”–a term that includes forests, deserts and grasslands used to generate solar, wind, and geothermal power.
Even if the W-M bill doesn’t pass, energy production will take up more land than the state of Minnesota by 2030. If an energy-boosting bill does pass, the amount of land required for new energy development in the next 20 years will grow by up to 48%, or 38,600 miles. In some cases, that energy development could lead to habitat destruction. Some solar proponents claim that solar arrays placed on a 100 square foot swath of land in Nevada could power the entire United States, but Robert McDonald, a Nature Conservancy scientist, essentially shuts them down, saying the study tried to “avoid that kind of maximal estimate.”
Even if the Nature Conservancy study exaggerates the issue, it’s hard to deny the potential impact of all the energy projects popping up. So what can be done? Obviously, conservation of already-existing energy resources could alleviate the pressure to build new ones. But future renewable energy projects can minimize habitat destruction by using already-disturbed or developed sites. For example, Los Angeles officials are toying with the idea of turning 17,750 acres of an abandoned airport into a solar facility. If similarly abandoned projects are repurposed, energy sprawl won’t have to be the most unfortunate side effect of a transition to clean power.