Producing Energy While Protecting the Land
The decisions we make about energy will shape our economy, influence our climate, and determine the quality of our air and water. They also impact the land. Today, land trusts face a range of pressing issues related to energy infrastructure — including transmission lines, natural gas extraction, pipelines, and solar and wind farms.
These infrastructure projects stand to seriously impact protected lands, as well as landscapes and resources that are priorities for conservation. Many land trusts are rising to these new challenges by taking on an active role in planning for our energy future.
Massive transmission lines can scar beautiful landscapes. They also require substantial clearing along their routes, which fragments forests and other habitats, creates inroads for invasive species, and often involves heavy use of herbicides.
In recent years, land trusts have responded to alarming proposals to fast-track new transmission lines, regardless of conservation resources. We succeeded in improving federal energy policies and making sure that protected lands are considered in the transmission planning process. For land trusts, it’s essential to list all easements in the National Conservation Easement Database, to make sure they count.
Sometimes, the claim is made that new transmission lines are necessary to deliver power from new sources of renewable energy, such as solar and wind farms. However, careful analysis is required to determine whether proposed lines would actually advance renewable energy. In some cases, improvements to the electric grid can resolve transmission issues, eliminating the need for new transmission lines.
Natural Gas Extraction and Pipelines
Natural gas is booming in the U.S. Because natural gas burns cleaner than coal, some see natural gas development as an important step to reduce the impacts of climate change. However, natural gas extraction also poses significant threats to our communities.
Approximately 90% of new natural gas wells use hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a controversial new technology that poses the risk of groundwater contamination. Natural gas wells also require massive amounts of water to operate, depleting limited supplies. Natural gas infrastructure has a heavy footprint on the land, as well, including drilling pads, wastewater pits, and pipelines. Fracking can even cause earthquakes, by disturbing geologic structures deep below the surface.
As new, high-impact technologies expand the range of both oil and gas extraction, there is increased demand for new pipelines to transport these fuels. Pipelines can fragment natural habitats and introduce the risk of spills that contaminate land and water. Many land trusts are actively engaged in these issues, leading efforts to protect resources in their communities.
Solar and Wind Farms
Solar and wind are both promising sources of clean, renewable energy — essential for meeting energy needs in the 21st century. But large-scale solar and wind farms require sensitive siting to minimize negative impacts.
Industrial-scale solar farms require covering large tracts of land with solar panels — usually 5 to 10 acres per Megawatt of generation. In the Mojave desert, solar projects have been proposed for over 500,000 acres! Clearly, large solar facilities dramatically alter the land. They come at a cost for wildlife habitat, farm and ranch land, scenic beauty and recreational and wilderness opportunities.
Wind farms can also extend over large tracts of land. The scenic impact of the high turbines, particularly on ridgelines, can be dramatic. Wind farms also pose risks to birds and bats, although this problem can be reduced by locating turbines outside of key migration corridors.
Land trusts help align conservation with clean energy by identifying resources that should be protected, as well as sites that are suitable for solar and wind generation. Land trusts also look for mitigation opportunities, offsetting negative impacts with conservation and restoration projects.