The nineteenth session of the Committee for the Review of the Implementation of the Convention (CRIC 19) to the UNCCD was organized online from 15 to 19 March 2021. Science Policy Circle evaluated the land use for energy generation, transmission, and distribution during this year's CSO representation at the UNCCD sessions.
With the expansion of distributed energy resources (DER) and systems, related land management has become an important issue. Stanford University points out that, Many new energy technologies, such as biofuels and solar farms, require enormous amounts of land if deployed at scale, putting them in competition with other land uses like growing food. Additionally, the land is frequently used for large-scale power generation plants, electricity transmission, water accumulation for hydropower generation, and for the mining of materials related to energy. A famous example of the variation in Land use is the Fukushima reborn to the solar hub, which is estimated to generate about 600 megawatts, or equivalent to two-thirds of a nuclear power plant. However, the reactors of Fukushima Daichi used to produce 4576 megawatts, almost 8 times the amount of power the solar panels farm will produce for the same space allocated.
The US transforms an average of 0.000099 acres of land per megawatt-hour for surface mining according to the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US describes that coal is typically mined by two methods. Firstly, surface mining is used to extract seams of coal that are up to 200 feet deep, and secondly, underground mining is used to access coal that can be up to 1,000 feet below ground. For coal, storage takes up land use as well. Finally, the coal waste, which is of low energy value is removed from the mine and dumped in massive piles.
The challenge we are faced with is that wind and solar generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced as coal- or natural gas-fired power plants. Another challenge is the DER-related distribution cannot be planned significantly ahead due to the continuous expansion of small-scale generation units. At the same time, the land use from non-renewable energy has significant soil and water implications as pointed out by UNCCD and IRENA. They point out that at the same time, non-biomass renewables typically have small direct footprints, although like pointed out before, required spacing suggests a dispersion over large areas.
Offshore wind, tidal energy, and floating solar are some of the energy generation methods that would minimize land use in energy generation. geothermal power plants don't use much land compared to coal and nuclear power plants. A more attractive method is multi-use of land alongside renewable energy generation. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has looked at such methods which facilitate plant growth. There have been multiple solutions in terms of Solar PV such as PV systems with trackers that will help move the shadow throughout the day allowing more light to hit the crops beneath - up to 75% for double-axis trackers. comparing it to a tree the double-axis tracker will co-exist with corps, however, it is not cost-effective nor easy to install and operate, there have been some new growing techniques that grow under solar PV systems but it’s not all corps. Choosing plants that do not need many hours of direct sunlight can also be a solution.
We need to realize that not all land is equal as Solar farms tend to be built where they are most efficient which typically means at deserts, a nonproductive land, solar PV can be installed at rooftop taking no land at all, Tesla roof is an early example, which may be said to consume no land. Wind farms are located in places where there is minimal human activity. The land used for renewable power generation is not entirely used because it can coexist with other things and sometimes it can enhance them. as the oil and nuclear plant make the land out of use for years and sometimes decades, the solar PV land can be used in farms as cows sheltering from the sun. Another good example is that by providing shade in warm, arid regions solar panels can actively encourage the growth of grass (and potentially other plants) underneath them as their shade ensures that less water evaporates and that, rather than available sunlight is the limiting factor for growing many desirable and thirsty plants. The case is similar to the wind turbines as farmers can put wind turbines on their farms and make money from it while farming all around the turbines, all while doing nothing to lower the land available.