Energy sprawl: The next worry?

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By Elisa Wood

September 3, 2009

Energy facilities take up space. Some, like wind farms, take up a lot of space. In fact, new energy production will consume more land than can be found in all of Nebraska by 2030, according to a recent report by The Nature Conservancy.

This will create what the report describes as “energy sprawl,” a term I’m guessing we will start to see more in the legal briefs by NIMBYists. It’s a flashpoint phrase. Americans don’t like sprawl of any kind — although we appreciate the convenience it affords. Nice that the super store is only five minutes away; not so nice to give up the paradise that became the parking lot.

Unfortunately, cleaner energy often means greater energy sprawl, the report says. The more aggressively we pursue greenhouse gas reduction, the more acreage we are likely to use. Biofuels, in particular, gobble up a lot of land because they use farm crops.

The report is not suggesting we give up on green energy. On the contrary, it appears to be more a matter of choosing energy sites with care. Chief among the report’s recommendations is pursuit of more energy efficiency. Of all energy choices, efficiency has the lowest impact on land use. For every terawatt hour of electricity use avoided, we avoid sacrificing 4.7 to 17.8 square miles, says the report.

After efficiency, the next three best ways to achieve emissions reductions, but limit energy sprawl, are to:

*Build power plants on brownfield sites as much as possible

*Create flexible cap and trade rules, which allow for emissions reductions with certain low-land impact technologies, such as nuclear power.

*Site plants carefully, in areas where they have minimum impact on habitat

The report also suggests that we make energy sprawl a new metric in energy policy, another issue to weigh when debating which resources to build. Is this a good idea? I’d be interested in hearing what readers think. On the one hand, clearly it’s important to protect habitat. On the other hand, siting power plants already is difficult. And if we don’t produce enough electricity, the consequences are serious.  Power shortages drive up prices, undermine our economy and disrupt our well-being.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts. And I’m guessing they may depend, at least in part, on how close you live to that piece of ‘Nebraska’ likely to disappear.

See the full report at

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. Chavdar Azarov says:

    Dear Elisa,

    Every human body needs energy no more than it can produce by its physical force.
    Mind needs more but how much more.
    Let’s start think about efficiency from here..

  2. not sure how you can claim americans don’t like sprawl when we invented and perfected it. disputes over plant/line siting nothing new.

    how is it again that a farmer growing bio-fuels is sprawl?