The Princeton Study, Solar and Wind Buildout and Landscape Transformation (Including Federal Lands)

Retired Smokey Bear commented about the proposed buildout of wind and solar in Virginia, which reminded me of the Princeton study. There’s a good New York Times article, which probably has a paywall but I included some maps and excerpts from there.  You can check out the Princeton study itself here.  It’s jam-packed with information of all kinds.

The Princeton study has several scenarios, and the maps here are based on the “Princeton Net-Zero America High Electrification scenario, which assumes that the United States will essentially phase out coal use and drastically reduce natural gas and oil use. The scenario also assumes the United States will use geologic sequestration to capture and store one metric gigaton of carbon each year by 2050. It also assumes there will be widespread adoption of electric vehicles in 2050 and high levels of building electrification.”

I believe you can scroll down on the maps to see your own part of the country, but I couldn’t figure out how. That’s why I’m using the NY Times maps below, for which wind is blue and solar is orange. Note that western forested areas in the PNW and northern California don’t have much to speak of, but for the interior West is looks like overlap with sage grouse terrain. Also note the midwest and east coast.  It seems that the brunt of this buildout will not occur on the coasts (except offshore) so there could be an element of Coastalism that crops up as the buildout occurs (if it does). If you read the comments, it looks like many think alternatives are rooftop and along existing highways and other previously manipulated habitat. If you didn’t think decarbonizing is ultimately an engineering/construction practical problem, this discussion might lead you there. Or back to nuclear. Which reminds me of this effort in Wyoming, which is being built to access the infrastructure and workforce of an existing coal mine.

Wind and solar needed by 2050 (NY Times map)
Solar and Wind today (from the NY Times)

Getting the permits

And back to our federal landscapes concerns.

Many of the places with the best sun and wind resources in the United States are on public land in the southwest and along the Rocky Mountains, so some energy will still need to come from remote areas in the West.

Getting approval to build on federal or state land can be a much longer process than what’s required for private land.

The Interior Department currently has a goal of approving permits for 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal land by 2025, but some of the Princeton models propose nearly five times that amount on public land in the coming decades.

How much energy is allowed on public land, and where projects are built, will depend on how the Biden Administration updates the solar and wind energy plans developed during the Obama administration. Those projects allow fast-tracked permitting for renewable projects on certain parcels of federal land for projects.

The existing plans, nearly a decade old, will need to be updated to account for advances in solar and wind technology that allow projects to be built on steeper terrain or to have less of an environmental impact.

Conservation

The question of whether to strictly conserve land for environmental purposes or make exceptions for clean energy is a thorny one.

Some species, like the desert tortoise and sage grouse, are being pushed to the brink of extinction by global warming and development, including oil and gas extraction, in their habitats. Without careful planning, adding vast solar panel arrays or hundreds of wind turbines where they live could push them over the edge. But so, too, could the continued burning of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures.

Renewable energy developers are required to conduct environmental impact studies and can sometimes offset the harm from new projects. A developer hoping to build wind turbines, for example, could pay to retrofit older, existing transmission lines in the area to make them safer for birds, balancing the toll on the species.

I think solar and wind installations are out for any 30 x 30 initiatives, so those efforts will also reduce the acres available. Perhaps it would make sense to start a national discussion now and delineate zones for solar and wind and transmission, and then start 30×30 ing.

1 thought on “The Princeton Study, Solar and Wind Buildout and Landscape Transformation (Including Federal Lands)”

  1. I agree there should be a national discussion (leading to a plan?). 30 x 30 is based in large part on sustaining biodiversity. I assume that wind and solar opportunities are more interchangeable than biodiversity values, and if so, any delineation of zones for solar and wind should attempt to minimize the loss of areas important to biodiversity. This would mean they should be consistent with 30 x 30 (not the other way around).

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