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US wind goals attainable on previously disturbed lands

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A new study finds that there is plenty of already disturbed land in the US to meet the 20% by 2030 goal for wind energy production.  Noting that habitat fragmentation is a key issue that can slow wind development, the researchers took a state-by-state approach that looked at both disturbed landscapes and wind resources, to see whether there is enough disturbed land (farmland, oil and gas fields, roads) on which to build out our wind future.

The answer: clearly yes. In fact, there’s enough disturbed land to build more than ten times the number of turbines needed.  While some states, including Maine, California, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, don’t have enough undisturbed land to meet their goals, many others have far more potential capacity than needed (see chart). “A disturbance-focused development strategy would avert the conversion of ~2.3 million hectares of undisturbed lands relative to the unconstrained scenario in which development is based solely on maximizing wind potential….Agriculture and oil and gas make up the vast majority of the disturbed lands identified in our analysis, such that removal of other disturbed lands would not qualitatively change our results. However, we believe that ridges surrounding abandoned surface mines and areas adjacent to existing roads also constitute disturbed areas where wind energy development should be considered.”

The researchers also note that “Placing turbines on disturbed lands may also benefit the expansion of transmission lines and associated infrastructure that will be critical to facilitate wind development. Because disturbed lands are already in areas of high road and transmission line density, they may ease the development of new or expanded transmission capacity. “

While their analysis focused on ground-based conservation needs, and so it is likely that some areas of bird and bat migration would need to be excluded from their disturbed-land analysis, there is enough extra potential capacity to easily move in this direction. What’s needed, they authors suggest, is policies that make it cheaper to build in disturbed land and more expensive to build on pristine land, which “could improve public value for both wind energy and biodiversity conservation.”

Read full paper online here.

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