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Get ready for the great American land rush — a mad scramble for space that's going to transform the entire country

Solar panels, windmills, and houses popping up on a farm field 2x1 gif
As the population and the economy continue to grow, America will need more space for green energy projects, residential buildings, factories, and farms.

A mad scramble for space that's going to transform the entire country

The United States of America, home of purple mountain majesties, amber waves of grain, and seas of shining … solar farms?

After decades of denial, foot-dragging, and political bickering, the US is finally starting to take meaningful action to tackle the climate crisis. The Biden administration's signature legislative victory, the Inflation Reduction Act, includes $370 billion in subsidies, some of which is to accelerate the adoption of the "green grid," an array of solar panels, wind farms, and power lines to shift the nation from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Even consumers are switching their behavior: More people are installing solar panels and buying electric cars.

This monumental move will not only reshape how we consume energy but change the landscape of the country. From expansive solar and wind farms to storage facilities filled to the brim with batteries, our crop of green-energy technology takes up a whole lot more space to generate the same amount of energy as our older fossil-fuel equipment. This means that a sizeable chunk of America's surface area is going to have to be transformed to fulfill the country's ambitious carbon goals and curb the devastating effects of the climate crisis. 

Green technology isn't competing with just itself for valuable space. As the population and the economy continue to grow, America also needs space for more residential buildings, factories, and farms. That raises a question: Do we have enough land to completely reshape our power grid? Based on the best estimates of how much space is needed, it's unlikely the US is going to run out of space anytime soon. But turning the country totally green will require tough choices about where we build this tech — and trigger some serious land battles in the process.

Will we cover 75% of California with green energy tech? 

To get a sense of just how much land will be required to generate all our electricity from renewable resources, it's important to understand just how much electricity Americans use. 

The efficiency (that is, the capacity and speed) of the consumption and generation of electricity is generally measured in watts. Standard light bulbs usually have an efficiency of 60 to 100 watts, depending on the brightness. Then there's watt-hours, or Wh, the power consumed per unit of time multiplied by the total time. You use 60 Wh of electricity when you leave your 60-watt light bulb on for an hour. Electricity plants run on a much larger scale; their efficiency is typically measured in kilowatts (1,000 watts) or megawatts (1 million watts). A power plant with 100 megawatt-hours of capacity can generate 2,400 MWh of electricity when operating constantly for a day. The average American household uses about 886 kilowatt-hours a month, or just over 10 MWh a year.

Compared with traditional power plants, renewable plants with the same power-generating capacity take up a lot more land: A 2017 study found that wind farms took up 70 acres per MW while solar farms required 43 acres per MW, including all the land needed for development, power generation, transportation, and storage — 3 1/2 times to five times the land needed by fossil-fuel plants, respectively, according to the analysis. And where their fossil-fuel counterparts can operate all day long, wind and solar generators can operate between 20% and 35% of the time because of the intermittent nature of the energy sources. Wind farms, for instance, take up so much space because the blades of wind turbines are as long as the wings of a Boeing 747, and wind turbines have to be placed far enough for their blades to spin without hitting each other. Less land would be needed for power generation if the wind turbines were larger and spun faster. But while a different design would generate more power with less space, it would also kill more birds. In the United States, wind turbines are thought to kill more than 500,000 birds each year. Restrictions have been imposed on the height and speed of the turbines to lower the risk of bird death.

Given these existing technological limitations and regulations, the aggregate demand for land to power our future green economy is huge. Suppose the annual electricity demand in the United States remains at about 4 billion MWh in 2050 and the land requirement per MW does not decline. We would need 120,000 square miles, or 77 million acres, of land to install the wind and solar facilities for the energy transition. This is equivalent to the area of three-quarters of California, or two Floridas. But as the number of Americans grows and the country shifts more of its energy focus to renewable sources, there's good reason to think the need for land will also grow. Electricity demand is bound to rise significantly because of the electrification of the transportation sector and the electrification of home heating. A 2021 estimate by Bloomberg using data from researchers at Princeton University suggested that in the most extreme scenario — one where the country gets almost all its new energy from solar or wind power — the US would need to use as much as 267 million acres of land to complete its green-energy transition. That area is nearly 2 1/2 times the size of California or about 1 1/2 times the size of Texas. Under the least land-intensive scenario, the United States would still need to devote an area nearly the size of two North Carolinas, about 63 million acres, to wind and solar power to achieve our green-power goals.

The great American land rush

Obviously we will not cover the vast majority of California with wind turbines or blanket Florida with solar panels — but to make the switch over to green energy and save the planet, American consumers and businesses are going to have to make some trade-offs. The lower 48 states of the US have a land area of 1.9 billion acres, some 2.9 million square miles, so even in the scenarios outlined above, energy use would make up 3% to 14% of the total land available.

But, as with any new project, a company can't just slap down a new solar plant or wind farm anywhere it wants. For one thing, these sorts of projects require a specific type of land to be cost-efficient and useful. Ideal locations for green-power plants should be in a sunny or windy place, on cheap land, close to the final electricity consumers. But there's one crucial problem: a lot of people want that sort of land. This means green-power generators have a delicate balancing act, seeking locations that have plenty of power-generation potential and are close to urban consumers but far enough away that land costs are lower. From 2010 to 2020, the US's total wind-energy capacity increased from 39,000 MW to 119,000 MW. These new wind farms were primarily added to the South and the Midwest, parts of the country that have the right weather and the right land price. Texas and the Midwest jointly account for roughly two-thirds of our country's wind capacity. But a full green-energy transition requires a more even distribution of renewables.

With the US projected to add 79 million residents by 2060, the demand for urban and suburban housing will further increase. While the amount of urban land is a relatively small slice of the overall pie, clocking in at just over 3.6% of our total land use based on the most recent data available, it is also the fastest-growing, with the US adding roughly 1 million acres of it per year. At current rates, the amount of newly converted urban space would equal the land area of Virginia by 2050. And projections from the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have suggested the shift to urban land could be even more drastic with as much as 8% of the country's land turning into urban sprawl by 2050, a shift of roughly 96 million acres, which the USDA notes "is larger than the state of Montana." Add this increase in urban space to the maximum potential area needed for green energy, and as much as 363 million acres may be transformed over the next 30 years — as little more than double the land area of Texas. Cities are already complaining about a lack of developable land and areas that were once exurban or even rural might be turned into prime real estate. As cities expand, rising land prices in these areas would further constrain the location options for green energy generators. 

The installation of large-scale wind and solar capacity would also entail an extensive conversion of rural farmland. Data from the USDA indicates that in 2012, over 50% of land was used by the agricultural sector — and the cost of this land is soaring. The average value per acre of cropland has grown to $5,050 from $2,760 in 2008, an 84% increase, while the value per acre of pastureland, which is generally cheaper, has increased by over 50%. This increase in value has led some of the country's wealthiest people, such as Bill Gates, to gobble up vast swaths of land as part of their investing strategies. This fight for land has pitted farmers against investors and green-energy suppliers, but it has also led to soaring values for some of the most desirable plots of farmland. As R. J. Jolly, a farmer and country commissioner in Cheyenne County, Colorado, told The Colorado Sun: "It's a big land rush. Everyone is jockeying to get into position. There is a lot of money on the table."  

And the political battle over land will only get fiercer as green-energy capacity increases. Local residents are often annoyed by wind turbines making loud noises and solar panels making their neighborhoods less pretty. Consider California: The state has many locations where green power could be sited, but it also sports a median home price over $750,000 and is famous for NIMBY lawsuits, even going so far as to block renewable-energy projects in the name of conservation. The world's largest solar-power plant is in California's Mojave Desert, but expansion of the plant has been met with opposition from environmentalists. In other parts of the country, conversions of farmland have triggered local backlash, and several states have introduced bills to limit the ability of green-power producers to convert farmland. An analysis by researchers at Columbia University found that local governments in 31 states had passed bills limiting the creation of renewable-energy projects. These legal restrictions on how land can be used has boxed out some of these projects or made them much more expensive than they need to be.

Potential solutions

This competition for scarce land will cause new local land-use battles, but there are some ways to alleviate the strain of this great American land rush. 

In many big cities besides New York, most residential land is zoned for single-family housing. If cities were to upzone these areas — making it possible to develop more, denser multifamily housing — the pressure to increase city sprawl would be eased. Meanwhile, distributed solar panels could be installed on the rooftops of multifamily apartments as a complement to utility-scale green projects in rural America.

Another way to reduce the need for land is to make farms more efficient, increasing the agricultural yield per acre. Agricultural productivity can increase over time because of improvements in farmer knowledge and new seeds developed through CRISPR gene-editing techniques. The need for farmland could decline also because of a shift in diet preferences. Most agricultural land is used to cultivate livestock — and a radical transition to fully plant-based diets could free up 75% of existing farmland. While that significant of a shift is unlikely to take hold, more young people are embracing diets without meat. If they retain these habits as they age, the average American will demand less meat over time.  

The political backlash in rural America could be alleviated if the economic gains from green power are large enough. These land-intensive projects can boost employment in the green-energy sector. They also significantly raise local tax revenue, with each MWh of capacity installed thought to lead to an increase of more than $7,000. This revenue can be used to build more schools and renovate rural healthcare systems. The potential increase in quality of life can sway rural Americans into supporting green-electricity projects. The federal government also controls swaths of land that could be used for green-power generation, and new public/private partnerships could help private investors confidently invest in solar panels and wind turbines on plots of government-owned land. 

But even with these options, America's ambitious climate goals and continued growth are going to cause some serious real estate battles. As Mark Twain wrote more than a century ago: "Buy land. They're not making it anymore."


Matthew E. Kahn is the Provost Professor of Economics at the University of Southern California.

Robert Huang is a junior at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Read the original article on Business Insider








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