Planning for a sustainable energy future: energy sprawl solutions

Techachapi-Mojave wind farm with more than 5,000 wind turpines. 1.3 mil kwh produced per year. Techachapi Mountians in California. © Marty Cordano

By Joe Kiesecker, lead scientist for land conservation, The Nature Conservancy

Following the Paris Agreement, 140 nations have volunteered plans to reduce their carbon emissions—most of which include a greater reliance on renewable energy sources. Subsequently, global investment in and power generation from renewables set new records in 2016 while the cost of generation from these sources fell. Given the urgent need to mitigate climate change while also meeting growing energy demand, especially in developing countries, this growth is welcome news.

Still, all energy sources have tradeoffs, including renewables. Hydropower fragments river ecosystems and alters water flows, while wind and solar have significant land footprints. In fact, the development of land for energy production is now the single largest driver of land-use change in the United States and a major driver around the world.

There’s no doubt we need to greatly increase the share of our power that comes from renewables if we’re to keep the climate in safe boundaries even as we expand energy access. But if we don’t plan carefully, the resulting “energy sprawl” could result in impacts to 20% of the remaining natural lands in the world, posing a major threat to global biodiversity and potentially causing the loss of important ecosystem services and conflicts over land use.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to address these issues through a more comprehensive, forward-looking approach to energy siting and management. Aided by new tools to simulate and plan for growth in energy use and development, we can charter a better path through the collaborative efforts of policy makers, industry leaders and the environmental community.

Planning for a sustainable energy future requires us to address three complex, interconnected problems: mitigating climate change by decarbonizing our economies; providing more widespread access to more affordable energy, including in the developing world; and protecting wildlife and biodiversity even as increased energy production requires the development of more land and fragments habitat.

It’s a tall order—but as my colleagues and I describe in the new book Energy Sprawl Solutions, there are ways to work through these interrelated issues. By anticipating future needs and planning on the regional and large-landscape scale, rather than the piecemeal approach that has predominated in many countries, we can reduce the most damaging aspects of energy development and compensate for them in places where it’s inevitable.

For starters, we should try to steer development to already-converted areas, including agricultural lands, industrial areas and former mine sites, and use existing infrastructure from fossil-fuel installations to connect these sources to our energy grids to avoid further habitat fragmentation. We can also mitigate sprawl by siting energy production as close as possible to the places where it will be used—encouraging development on the very rooftops of the industries and houses where energy will be consumed.

Where siting on undisturbed lands is inevitable, we’ll need to work with governments and energy companies to come up with regional energy plans that avoid the most ecologically important areas. Input from environmental scientists will also be critical, as they are best positioned to identify lands with highest biodiversity value. By addressing a broad range of land values—including biodiversity, ecosystem services and social values—we can help the industry and regulators identify locations where renewable energy can be advanced with minimal impacts to ecosystems and people.

A new tool developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) can also help people visualize the tradeoffs associated with energy use by examining projected energy needs in the future and comparing land-use and carbon emissions resulting from the development of different energy sources. Other modeling tools can help to simulate and evaluate the economic impact of energy choices.

The Nature Conservancy’s energy sprawl interactive tool.

We’re seeing some successes already. In Mongolia, for example, the national government has embraced a proactive planning process that takes account of biological resources, ecosystem services, climate change and projected development. Already, the country has used this approach to protect an area the size of the state of New York (~150,000 km2). In Brazil, meanwhile, TNC has worked with businesses and the government to assess economic and environmental trade-offs on a large landscape-scale; their findings show that biofuels production and environmental goals can be met even in biodiversity and agricultural hotspots.

With careful planning, we can figure out the right balance of energy sources and the best places to put them. In doing so, we may actually accelerate our conversion to renewable energy—a major boon for climate mitigation—while also safeguarding biodiversity. That means a more sustainable future for people and the planet. 

Explore our interactive tool and read about energy sprawl solutions from around the world: