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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The Renewable Energy Land Rush Could Threaten Food Security

  • Utility-scale solar and wind farms require 10 times more land than fossil fuel power plants, exacerbating land scarcity.
  • Renewable energy projects often compete with prime agricultural land, leading to potential loss of fertile soils and agricultural viability.
  • Agrivoltaics offers a promising solution, combining solar energy generation with sustainable agriculture practices.
Renewable Energy

Meeting global climate goals will require an unprecedented buildout of energy infrastructure in terms of both speed and scale. And while the energies themselves may be renewable, their construction, production, and maintenance requires a whole lot of finite resources, from rare Earth minerals and metals to the very land they are built on. This last issue regarding mass-scale land use and acquisition, in particular, is already one of the biggest hurdles facing the global decarbonization transition.

As the renewable revolution picks up pace, more and more land is required for conversion to utility-scale solar and wind farms. This is becoming extremely tricky extremely fast in a world that is increasingly competing for scarce land area, especially considering that solar and wind farms need land that is both well-suited to their particular climatic and geographic needs and large enough to make the project worthwhile. 

According to a report from global consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company, utility-scale solar and wind farms require a whopping 10 times as much land as a typical coal or natural gas power plant. And that includes the land required for production as well as transportation of those fossil fuels. “Wind turbines are often placed half a mile apart, while large solar farms span thousands of acres,” the report states. “The implications of this are daunting. Developers need to continuously identify new sites with increasing speed at a time when the availability of suitable, economically desirable land is getting tighter.”

And the energy sector isn’t the only sector that needs those large and sunny land plots. Renewable energy projects are often competing for some of the most valuable agricultural land, presenting serious challenges and trade-offs among two of the world’s most critical sectors. A recent deep-diving Reuters analysis based on huge swaths of data and key stakeholder interviews reveals that the renewable energy boom risks damaging some of the United States’ richest soils in its most important farming states. 

Solar farms clear huge areas of land of all vegetation, making the soil extremely vulnerable to erosion and allowing precious topsoil to simply dry up and blow away, threatening dust-bowl conditions and a total loss of future agricultural viability in affected areas. The loss of this topsoil cannot be reversed in any meaningful timeline. “The reality is that it takes thousands of years to create an inch of fertile topsoil,” warns National Geographic, “but it can be destroyed in minutes.”

At its most basic level, it’s an issue of economics. On the whole, farmers struggle to make a profit through agriculture and largely rely on federal support and subsidies to stay afloat. But if they sell or lease their land for conversion to renewable energy production projects, they stand to make a much bigger paycheck. Regardless of whether it’s actually the best use of the land or the best decision for the United States’ food security, it’s certainly the best financial decision for the landholder. 

In a business-as-usual scenario, forecasts show that 83% of new solar energy development in the U.S. will be on farm and ranchland, according to researchers from the American Farmland Trust. Nearly half of that land is the country’s most prime agricultural land. The non-profit farmland protection agency lobbies for what they call “Smart Solar” instead of indiscriminate solar expansion. A sharp shift in policy will be necessary to ensure that solar expansion works alongside the farming industry to maintain critical agricultural heartlands. 

“The key question for our national solar buildout is not ‘if,’ but ‘how,’” said Tim Fink, Policy Director of the American Farmland Trust. “Our nation’s renewable energy transition is happening quickly, and solar energy is a significant part of it. We must act in the next Farm Bill to ensure that this transition benefits farmers, farmland, and farm communities.”

One such solution is the employment of agrivoltaics, which are synergistically combined solar and agriculture systems. In this symbiotic relationship, crops benefit from the shade of solar panels, while the panels are assisted by the natural cooling that the plants provide as they release water through transpiration, which serves to increase their photovoltaic efficiency. Critically, this system eliminates the tactic of clear-cutting the farmland, safeguarding the topsoil. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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Leave a comment
  • Rex Tillerson on May 07 2024 said:
    Trust me, we have an ever more rapidly closing window before the use fossil fuels completes its destruction of the earth's environment. So, you chose, do we give up some land to harness the free energy offered by the sun and wind, or do we finish ourselves off?

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