MISSOULA, MONTANA—New energy development in the United States could take up a land area roughly twice the size of Maine by 2040, according to a new estimate. Building the new coal mines, oil and gas wells, and solar and wind farms needed to meet projected energy production levels could require an additional 175,000 to 250,000 square kilometers of real estate, researchers reported here at the North America Congress for Conservation Biology. Such “energy sprawl” will complicate efforts to preserve wildlife habitat, they predicted.
“There is going to be a very large challenge in siting all of this energy infrastructure,” says landscape ecologist Anne Trainor of Yale University, who is developing the estimates with Joseph Fargione, a science director at the Nature Conservancy in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “But it is important that we understand how much space we might need under different scenarios, and be able to understand the trade-offs related to different energy sources.”
To get that big picture, the researchers built on a similar 2009 analysis that appeared in PLOS ONE. Drawing on official energy forecasts, they explore four scenarios: a “business-as-usual” world that assumes no major changes in energy trends; an “increased oil and gas” future in which those fuels play a bigger role; a “limited carbon” world which includes government curbs on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels; and a “renewables” future that includes expanded solar, wind, and biofuel energy production. They then estimate how much new land would be needed for each energy source through 2040, including infrastructure like roads and transmission lines. A conventional gas well, for example, typically requires 2 to 4 hectares. They made the numbers comparable by converting everything to a common unit, “kilometers squared per terawatt hour” of energy produced.
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