A 2021 Bloomberg New Energy Finance article provides helpful visualizations and relevant estimates. According to Bloomberg NEF’s calculations, the U.S. uses around 81 million acres to provide for its energy needs (and present living standards). Biofuels consume >50 million acres or >60% of that area.
Most people mistakenly presume fracking has an enormous land footprint. But the Bloomberg NEF analysis shows that all U.S. oil and gas drilling, fracking, and sand mining operations impact only 3 million of the 81 million acres (<4%).
Adding the acreage containing coal mining, transport and waste storage operations plus fossil-fuel power plants brings the total for fossil fuels to around 3.75 million acres. By comparison, wind and solar facilities cover over 7 million U.S. acres.
According to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data, oil, coal, and natural gas provide ~78% of US primary energy consumption from those 3.75 million acres. Wind and solar provide ~5% of U.S. primary energy using about twice the total land area. Put differently, in the U.S., oil, coal and natural gas provide over 15 times the useful energy on about half the footprint compared to wind and solar.
Other excellent comparisons in the Bloomberg NEF piece drive home the differences in energy density and the resulting land use implications.
A 200-megawatt wind farm, for instance, might require spreading turbines over 13 square miles (36 square kilometers). A natural-gas power plant with that same generating capacity could fit on to a single city block. A conventional 1-gigawatt nuclear reactor operating on 1,000 acres produces the same amount of energy as a wind farm spanning 100,000 acres.
Two-thirds of America’s total energy footprint is devoted to transportation fuels produced from agricultural crops, primarily corn grown for ethanol. It requires more land than all other power sources combined but provides just 5% of the nation’s energy, making it the most land-intensive major fuel source.
“Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Project maps various pathways to reaching a carbon-free U.S. by 2050, and how much land it would take. The most land-intensive (renewables) plan eliminates all fossil fuels and nuclear plants. Wind and solar provide 98% of electric power by 2050. The U.S. energy footprint quadruples in size. Wind farms (alone) occupy land areas equivalent to Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.
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