In this guide, we look at which energy source might use the most land i.e. how land efficient each energy source is.
We look at the land footprints of common energy sources like fossil fuels, renewables, and nuclear.
We also briefly look at how good for the land each energy source might be when considering land degradation & the side effects of pollution of the different energy sources.
Summary – Which Energy Source Uses The Most Land
When it comes to different energy sources and land use/impact on land:
– The more land efficient an energy source is, the less concern there might be for land use and land scarcity issues
– Additionally, the more eco friendly an energy source while in operation, or during it’s installation, the less impact it might impact to land and soil degradation issues
Land Use By Power Density
When measuring the power density of infrastructure and power plants, natural gas and nuclear might be most land efficient, whilst biomass and renewables like wind and hydro might be least land efficient
Land Use When Accounting For All Equipment & Supporting Infrastructure
What the above measurement doesn’t take into account is ALL dedicated land to fossil fuels (for roads, pipelines, storage facilities, refineries, and so on)
Once these factors are taken into account, it’s a State by State assessment as to which energy source uses the most land, but renewables can be far more land efficient than fossil fuels, and also use less land overall
Methodology for calculations should also be observed in any assessment – the exact land included in each energy source’s footprint should be identified to ensure double counting or incorrect/inaccurate counting errors aren’t made
Versatile & Multi Use Nature Of Renewables
Renewable energy land can also be multi use e.g. using solar and wind on the same land plot, or combining renewable energy land use with agricultural activity. Whereas land used for fossil fuel tends to be single use
Additionally, there are considerations such as solar panels being able to be installed on buildings, vehicles, and other places where land use is more efficient
Furthermore, wind turbines can be installed offshore, as opposed on onshore – a difference to other energy sources
And lastly, energy sources like hydro might be able to make use of land sites that other energy sources can’t. If it’s pumped storage hydro, the energy can be stored until it’s needed and doesn’t have to be used immediately
Rooftop solar and offshore wind could be some of the most land efficient forms of energy in the future
Lifespan & ReUse Of Land
It’s worth noting that solar panels and wind turbines that wear out can have new ones installed in their place.
Comparatively, oil wells might eventually permanently run dry.
Accounting For Future Changes & Improvements/Capabilities For Energy Sources
Something that has to be considered for the future is how technology may increase the power density, or power production capacity of solar
With these things taken into account, renewables could get more land efficient in the future
Considering Land Pollution & Land Degradation
Land and soil degradation is a consideration, in addition to land footprint
Renewable energy may also lead to less air and water pollution than fossil fuel sources like coal – so, the surrounding land may end up in better health
However, there is some question over the level of land degradation that large solar farms might cause
Land Use When Measured By Power Density
Fossil fuels and nuclear can be most land efficient, and renewables and biomass the least, when measuring by power density.
When measuring land use by power density – the average electrical power produced in one horizontal square metre of infrastructure …
Biomass, hydro and wind … take up the most space. [Whilst] Natural gas and nuclear take [the] least
… renewable energies generally need more space than fossil fuels
Land Use When Measured By Total Land Used
When looking at total land use, including upstream infrastructure, and other factors and inclusions, solar and wind might be more land efficient than fossil fuels and nuclear.
Paraphrased and summarised from cleantechnica.com (the full article link can be found in the resources section):
[Some sources say wind and solar farms might use up, and also degrade a lot of on shore and offshore land, and also forests]
[What needs to be accounted for though is the multiple uses of land used for wind and solar – they can be paired together, or even paired with agricultural land use]
[In California for example, most of the land used for fossil fuels can only be used for fossil fuels … i.e. it isn’t multi use like land used solar or wind]
[What also needs to be accounted for is the total land footprint of different energy sources, including infrastructure and so on, and not just the power plant or panel/turbine farm site]
[Once gas wells, road, storage facilities, fueling stations, gas pipes, refineries and all fossil fuel dedicated land is taken into account …] there is less actual footprint on the ground [in California] than the fossil infrastructure
[Solar can also be placed on buildings, which has no land footprint, and wind turbines have a very small base land footprint]
[If future offshore wind seems too land intensive … this can be substituted with more onland solar PV]
[Previous renewable energy land footprint studies might include errors like counting] land that was set aside for future project expansion and double counting of land where projects overlap. [They may] also fail to account for the actual odd shapes of wind farms and includes areas beyond wind farm boundaries
Paraphrased from cleantechies.com:
[When taking into account fossil fuel plants’ substantial upstream infrastructure, wind energy and solar power use less land than fossil-fueled power plants or nuclear reactors]
[With solar and wind energy,] turbines or solar panels can be installed in the same space [when old ones wear out], or that land area can be converted back to its original use.
Meanwhile, oil and gas land use is unsustainable: wells run dry, wells have to be shut-in properly after the resources are exhausted, and new wells have to be drilled elsewhere and use more land.
Potential Future Improvements In Capacity & Performance Of Renewables
Solar may see improvements in the future.
Rooftop solar and offshore wind may be some of the most land efficient forms of energy.
Solar technology may increase power density and increase total land efficiency in the future:
… new three-dimensional designs could reach over three to five times today’s [power density] figures [for solar rooftop PV]
In addition, solar CSP that absorbs energy during the day could increase power production capacity for solar.
Also from phys.org:
… [in the future] rooftop solar will be the best bet—providing clean power that doesn’t compete with other land uses. Offshore wind will help too
… very low power densities of biomass make it a difficult sell [as a future renewable energy source], especially since the land on which it is produced can sometimes be used for growing food instead
Potential Land Degradation By Different Energy Sources
phys.org and cleantechies.com mention how land used for renewable energy might be less polluted than land used for fossil fuels and nuclear. The same goes for surrounding land.
Having said that, there is some question over certain types of land degradation inflicted on land used for large scale solar farms
So, land and soil health comes into question with each energy source too