July 6, 2022

Executive Director Jessica Lovering Co-Authors New Research Indicating the Transition to Clean Energy Can Be Low-Carbon and Low Land-Use

The study’s results show that despite widely held assumptions, several clean energy options, including nuclear, have a small land footprint.

On July 6, Jessica Lovering and her co-authors Marian Swain, Linus Blomqvist, and Rebecca R. Hernandez published the research paper "Land-Use Intensity of Electricity Production and Tomorrow’s Energy" Landscape in PLOS ONE. After conducting the first-ever comprehensive study of the land occupied by power generation across all technologies using real-world data, the researchers found that several clean energy technologies available today have a relatively small land footprint. 

“While there is often an assumption that transitioning to clean energy will require significantly more land disturbance, our results find several options that are both low-carbon and low land-use, including nuclear, geothermal, and integrated solar,” said Lovering. 

Previously, land-use studies only relied on single-case studies of individual power plants or hypothetical/modeled power generation. Here, the researchers aggregated and standardized land-use data from dozens of studies, public databases, and original geospatial analyses for under-studied technologies like nuclear and wind. Their comprehensive examination of land-use intensity of energy (LUIE) indicated significant variations within and between technologies. While nuclear averages 7.1 hectares (ha), which equals approximately 20 football fields, dedicated biomass averages 58,000ha, or about 14,000 football fields. Meanwhile, the LUIE for hydroelectric ranges from less than 0.1ha per TWh to over 2.5 million ha per TWh. 

The study’s results suggest specific clean energy projects with low land-use are less likely to face hurdles than land-extensive electricity sources like wind power when seeking social and political approval. For example, small land-use, clean energy sources will be less likely to affect multiple communities, decreasing the potential for local opposition to projects. Additionally, low land-use clean energy projects will be less likely to come into contact with protected ecosystems or endangered species that require additional regulatory oversight.

“Rather than just focusing on carbon emissions, policy-makers thinking about the future of our energy mix should look more holistically at different metrics, including land-use intensity, to measure the impact of power generation on the environment,” said Lovering.

PLOS ONE is an open-access journal which allows the findings to be used by decision-makers and integrated into future energy models. Lovering, Swain, and Blomqvist completed the bulk of their work for this piece while employed with the Breakthrough Institute. Rebecca R. Hernandez is an interdisciplinary ecologist in the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at the University of California Davis.

Jessica Lovering is available for additional comment and background on this research paper.