How Much Land is Needed to Keep America Powered?16 Mar 2021
Our 3.8 million square-mile nation uses its space for a lot of purposes. About 50 percent of U.S. land is used for agriculture. Roads run for over 4 million miles across the country. Forests occupy nearly 300,000 square miles. But this vast and dynamic country requires abundant energy to build and maintain all we have. Do you know how your nation’s land is used for energy infrastructure?
We will answer that question and more by focusing on three highly discussed infrastructure components: pipelines, wind turbines, and solar panels. Whether it is your backyard, your state park, or your country’s biggest landmarks, energy infrastructure and land are inevitably wed together.
Energy plants total an estimated 52,000 acres, or about 35,000 football fields. These power centers convert fuels into usable energy. In many cases, power plants are midway stations for the raw materials coming into them and the transmission lines sending electricity out. One prominent type of power plant is the natural gas plant, which burns natural gas to spin turbines. While the land used to generate this power is critical, we focus on a slightly less obvious piece of infrastructure – the pipelines feeding into it.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, “more than 2.6 million miles of pipelines safely deliver trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of ton/miles of liquid petroleum products each year.” To put that into perspective, that is enough pipeline to reach the moon and back five times.
To get permission to place these millions of miles of pipelines through certain properties, companies use Right-of-Ways, or ROWs, with landowners. As articulated by the American Petroleum Institute, “a pipeline right-of-way (ROW) is property in which a pipeline company and a landowner both have a legal interest.” Regulation specific to operation on or near ROWs is delegated to cities, townships, or communities by their states. Each state varies, though. For example, some places only allow low density development near pipelines and others are stricter with their regulation.
Federal regulation, however, is preemptive and therefore overrules state and local rule where infrastructure crosses state lines. Where hazardous materials are concerned, federal rules govern land use, especially on the coast and in wetlands. For example, the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee (FERC) often overrides private landowners as well as local and state governments, as they are authorized to do.
Furthermore, pipeline planning and regulatory practices have traditionally been planned during the growth and development of towns and cities in the 20th century, meaning that more developed and urban cities have more thorough pipeline regulation. Conversely, pipelines previously laid that stand in the way of current urbanization are receiving little to no regulation.
“Anecdotal evidence of building development, including schools, adjacent to transmission pipelines suggests that managing the risks to the public near pipelines has not been considered by many local governments,” according to the National Academy of Sciences.
In terms of land use, those millions of miles of pipeline are primarily underground. Including an easement width, pipelines do use huge swaths of land. Much of the space they use is concurrent with existing infrastructure corridors and rights-of-way. Pipelines often run alongside highways and freight rail tracks or under electrical transmission lines. In this way, even though a lot of space is needed to facilitate energy transfer, much of the land is used for multiple pieces of energy infrastructure.
In regard to wind turbines, there are over 67,814 turbines across 44 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico according to the latest U.S Wind Turbine Database (USWTD) report. The USWTD also states that a wind turbine can generate over 400,000 kilowatt-hours per month, which is enough to power over 450 average homes in the United States.
As with pipelines, federal, state, and local entities play a role in regulating wind turbines and much of the wind energy development. Many states, such as South Carolina, offer incentive programs, such as low interest loans, to encourage creating sources of renewable energy.
In terms of the amount of land used for turbines, according to Richard Gaughan, each wind turbine requires three-quarters of an acre per megawatt. Gaughan also states, “…regulations in the United States vary from a distance ‘so that noise from the turbines is not an intrusion,’ to ‘twice the height of the system, including the rotor blades,’ to a uniform 304.8 meters.” This is largely because wind technology is relatively new to the world and is constantly changing.
One interesting consideration about wind is that power is usually generated far from city centers and populated areas. This electricity must then be transported long distances through transmission lines to reach the end users. When accounting for the land needed to develop wind power, the transmission infrastructure could reasonably be calculated into the figure – and certainly into the costs.
Solar Panels are also constantly changing and exploding in popularity. Accounting for subsidies and other forces, solar energy is touted as the cheapest and most abundant energy source available in the world. With solar panels, we are able to convert the sun’s radiation into usable energy for electricity and power.
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), only five minutes of the energy hitting the entire continental U.S. would be enough to power our national monthly electricity demand. The U.S. could theoretically be powered by utility-scale solar panels occupying just 0.6 percent of our land mass, per research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
The amount of land that a solar panel requires depends on its unique technology and efficacy. For example, a utility-scale solar power plant requires about five to 10 acres per megawatt, per SEIA. Obtaining this land for solar power plants is a complex process and is subject to strict review from local, state, and federal entities. This is all an effort to minimize the environmental impact.
In the same way that wind power is derived far away from urban environments, a concentrated utility-scale solar farm would then require transmission infrastructure to disperse the electricity to those demanding it. This is a second land-use factor facing solar, in addition to the large physical space that would otherwise be used for agriculture, forests, or other habits. Unlike wind or pipelines, however, solar panels can be affixed to individual homes and businesses and generate smaller but usable amounts of power at the demand source.
Rooftop solar may be a way to avoid land-use concerns altogether, as homes can power themselves and no additional deforestation or agricultural conversion would be needed to build solar farms or transmission lines. Combined with a smarter grid, this may mean generating power and distributing it around a grid network could improve the energy efficiency of an area and reduce the land needed to power the community.
As technology advances, our energy infrastructure and its impact on land use will change. Infrastructure and land are inextricably related, so staying up to date on how we relate the two is important in understanding how we move forward with energy production, the use of the nation’s land, and monitoring the environmental impact of how we tie the two together. Be sure to keep up with Aii as we do just that.
Written by John Cassibry, Media Coordinator
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The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.