Paula Hendricks

Author ~:~ Writer ~:~ Book Designer ~:~ Book Producer

Land Use for Energy

with 2 comments

I am all for renewable energy. I am for significant efforts and even sacrifice to move our economy away from fossil fuels and slow-renewing natural resources (oil, gas)… but what I am seeing as the solutions make me nervous. I am seeing things I don’t want to see. I am realizing that unless we do this right, we may ruin what we are trying to save.

How much land will all this take? How much land are we using now and how much more land will we have to use? How much land is really necessary to do what we need to do? Am I scaring myself for no good reason or are there real concerns we need to address right away?

Are we not being innovative enough? Or is it just that I don’t know what is happening out there? Here’s what I think I know (which may not be very much):

Solar. Solar farms seem to be in the news a lot. And I am seeing more and more solar farms being built in the deserts. Acres and acres if not miles and miles of solar panels covering the desert floor near Mojave, California. Do we not want to take a look at what we are covering? Maybe they do use up less land than our older technologies, but shouldn’t we be looking at this? Hmm, something like assessing kw/acre?

Three large solar farms are expected to be online this year (2008):

  1. New Mexico’s large solar power farm to be built on 3,200 acres of mostly public land near the Mexican border. The proposed facility would be 60 times larger than the world’s biggest currently operating solar farm in Germany’s Bavaria region
  2. California’s 80-MW San Joaquin Valley Customer Choice Solar Farm, to be located near Fresno, California, will, at 640 acres, be 17 times the size of the current U.S. title-holder, the 4.6-MW Springerville Generating Station near Tucson, Arizona. It will also be approximately 7 times larger than the world’s biggest existing plant and twice the size of the largest planned farm, both in Germany
  3. Portugal’s large solar farm will be near the small town of Mouro. When the £250 million ($500 million) farm is fully operational later this year, it will be twice as large as any project of its kind in the world. It is expected to supply 45MW of electricity every year, enough to power 30,000 homes.

OK, this sounds good. We are moving toward renewables. But, why are these farms better than other solutions. And how many miles and acres of land will we have to cover to get to a 100% renewable energy economy? And what about space farms? Solar farms in space? And aren’t there better ways to generate solar anyway besides big panels?

“If you were to ask how to get the most bang for your buck, solar photovoltaic would be at the bottom of the list,” said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley.” –

Wind farms. What I see is huge swaths of land turned over to huge propeller type wind machines – acres and acres and acres of land, now being used for energy production that used to be wild. The largest wind farm in the world has 421 wind turbines that generate a total capacity of 735 megawatts (A single megawatt of wind energy can produce as much energy used by about 230 typical Texas homes in a year). The wind turbines are spread across 47,000 acres of land in Taylor and Nolan County, Texas. As of 2007 the US has 16,596 installed megawatts capacity. Plans are in the works for even larger wind farms in the UK, East Texas, Delaware, Ireland, and China.

Biofuel. What I hear is that we will need to put millions and millions of acres into production for biofuels – maybe convert food agriculture to biofuels production; maybe convert other land to biofuels production. In Brazil, there is serious concern that bio fuels are one reason the rainforest is being demolished at such a fast rate. Whatever way we go, biofuels apparently need new land turned into a monoculture. Take a look at Brazil.

What am I not seeing? I am not seeing massive efforts to convert what is already covering the earth – rooftops, solar strips on the shoulders of jackets and coats and on purse straps or the top of my car. I am not seeing innovations in capturing heat in cities or energy from treadmills or a reduction in light pollution (The apartment building next door has its courtyard lights on all night and in the 5 years I’ve been living here there has been no crime in that courtyard and very little use of it by residents at night. Why can’t they put motion sensor on those lights?)

Why must we be looking at this vast use of wild land? Isn’t there a better way to convert one form of energy to another? Can’t we look at turning every building into a net generator of energy rather than a net user?

Southern California Edison is actually planning to build a 250-megawatt farm, situated on commercial rooftops like big box stores. Can’t we scale this?

“They are planning to install 1 megawatt per week starting in August. Once the project is finished, it will take up 65,000,000 square feet of roofs that would otherwise be unused and produce enough clean energy to supply about 162,000 homes. The total cost of the project will be about $875 million and is projected to take about five years to complete.” –

What about thin film that can be attached to anything? Can’t we look at using things that already cover the earth to carry energy conversion technology with us? Why can’t my rental apartment have solar strips on its windows? Or on my car? Or on me? Why can’t I charge my own cell phone as I walk along a city sidewalk? Why can’t I be an energy collector myself? I see these gadgets in magazines. What about putting solar strips on hats and purse straps and jackets and sports uniforms and kids clothes and toys? Why can’t we scale this?

Why can’t we capture excess heat and energy? Light from the tops of bulbs, heat from cities and homes and office buildings and smelters and refineries. I read recently about energy generated at gyms by treadmills – can’t we somehow make this all about energy generation?

The web has turned many business models upside down. We talk about viral marketing and no longer talk exclusively about mass marketing. We talk about mass customization and citizen media and how to corral and use the power of individuals. Don’t we have to do this with energy generation, too? Why are we looking primarily at mass generators instead of millions of micro generators? Why can’t I connect to the grid? Like wifi in reverse?

Even in food generation, we are now re-assessing the need for huge hideous feedlots and we’re looking at how to scale victory gardens and small farm output. We are even looking into micro gardens for urban areas. Isn’t this at least one area we should be looking at for energy generation, too?

So, now I’ve talked myself into a project: how much land are we using now in the whole life cycle of energy creation and distribution? And how does that compare to where we seem to be going? And how could we do it even better? How much land do we use to generate, distribute and handle the waste of nuclear energy? How much land do we use to mine and burn coal? How much land do we use to generate hydropower and geo thermal and wind?  And what about oil (leases to drill, drilling, refining, distributing)? Or tidal? How much land is used for energy distribution? Grids, sub-stations, gas stations for our cars? How much land is set aside as toxic because of waste from energy generation or accidents? And how can we do this better?



Written by phwebnet

October 28, 2008 at 8:04 pm

2 Responses

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  1. You make good points on land use/conversion vs. renewable energy. The point I think though is that most renewable main stream sources are above ground which should reduce or limit there overall environmental impact.

    That said, yes there will be “impact” but the a;ternative is what? with growing world wide demand and no end in sight the option of doing nothing now would certainly prove more disasterous for a trade off. The thin film idea is good but ince it only 10% efficient at this time probably not as viable yet as wind farm, solar towers etc. But definitley good arguments and food for thought.

    The truth as I see it is certainly the majority of the renewable energy will in fact be different versions of technologies in solar power.

    Jeff Dahlgren

    October 29, 2008 at 5:47 am

  2. Thanks Jeff. Yes, this is meant as food for thought. As we use more and more surface land for energy production, it’s good to be asking if there aren’t better ways. There is no question that renewables and sustainable practices are where we have to be.


    October 29, 2008 at 6:08 am

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