energy sprawl

The foremost criterion by which to judge any existing or potential energy source is its systemic ecological impact. A key subset of this analysis is its physical footprint. The useful term “energy sprawl” refers to the ever-increasing area—on land and offshore—that is devoted to energy production. Quantifying the area affected by different energy sources raises challenging methodological questions. It’s obvious, for instance, to take into account the drilling pad when considering the energy sprawl impact of oil and gas development. But one should also include the land affected by pipelines, access roads, refining facilities, and other related infrastructure in the calculation. Nuclear power plants occupy a small area relative to their electrical generation output, the smallest physical footprint of any major energy source. That energy sprawl impact grows considerably, however, when one factors in uranium prospecting, mining, processing, nuclear waste disposal, and any new power lines needed for an expanded nuclear industry. Moreover, as past accidents have demonstrated, when nuclear power plants fail, a large area can be contaminated.

Because of their high energy densities, coal, oil, and natural gas have a medium-size footprint if judged on an energy-output-per-acre ratio; but in practice these extractive industries affect a huge and growing area because they dominate energy production, and because of the enormous quantities of energy being consumed. Oil shale development in the American West is a potential area of fossil fuel exploitation that would create massive energy sprawl. Renewables, which harness the diffuse energy sources of wind and solar power, can have a large physical footprint relative to energy produced; they constitute such a small part of the current energy mix in North America that their aggregate energy sprawl impact at present is modest but growing. Because wind turbines require minimum spacing distances to maximize wind energy capture, the physical footprint of wind power is extensive but can be mitigated, whereas decapitated mountains in Appalachia sacrificed for surface coal mining will never grow back. Siting wind turbines in existing agricultural landscapes need not fragment any additional wildlife habitat. Putting solar arrays on rooftops, parking lots, and urban brownfields need not contribute to energy sprawl at all while generating significant energy close to where it is needed, eliminating the sprawl precipitated by new transmission lines.

Devoting land to growing feedstock for liquid biofuels, or growing biomass for generating electricity, augurs the greatest potential energy sprawl of the major energy alternatives under discussion. The energy density of these fuels is low and the amount of land that must be effectively industrialized, even for relatively small quantities of biofuels or biomass-derived electricity, is massive. In the end, the most effective strategy for fighting energy sprawl is to reduce energy consumption.