show a 65 percent increase in energy demand by 2050. To ensure a path
to a stable climate, the world must increase its renewable energy
development dramatically as the centerpiece of this expansion.
However, all energy sources present trade-offs. Without careful
planning of the world’s needed energy development, the resulting “energy
sprawl”, the amount of land and water area needed to produce energy,
could cause unnecessary loss of important ecosystem services to people,
potentially exacerbate conflicts over land use and pose a major threat
With the potential for rising energy demands around the world to
convert as much as 20 percent of remaining natural lands, is it possible
to balance energy development with biodiversity protection? The answer
is yes. Solving energy sprawl rests in the critical albeit unglamorous
work of ensuring large-scale advance planning.
By anticipating future energy needs—not just our needs now—and
planning on a regional and large-landscape scale, rather than the
piecemeal approach that has predominated in most countries, we can take
advantage of the opportunity to reduce the land-use footprint of
renewables, safeguard ecosystem-services and biodiversity, and even
potentially accelerate the needed transition to renewable energy. It’s
about knowing what the right energy mix is and where to place it. In
doing so, we can place ourselves on a truly sustainable path to repowering the
Read more below, or you can download the full PDF to the right.
Repowering the Planet: Solar Energy Zones in the United States
desirable the rapid growth in installed solar power capacity worldwide
has been, it has posed, and will continue to pose, challenges for land
use. Policies and funding have successfully stimulated new projects, but
permitting and planning have delayed approvals and insufficient
attention has been paid to impacts on other natural resources.
2012, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in line with comprehensive
assessments of the value of lands carried out by The Nature Conservancy,
adopted a landscape approach to accelerate utility-scale solar energy
development on public lands. The landscape plan, which identifies ‘solar
energy zones’ applies to a six-state region and assesses the potential
deployment of solar energy development over the next 20 years, as well
as its direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts. Since then, 19 solar
energy development zones have been identified, and large areas of the
region have been designated as off-limits for development because it
would not be the best use of public lands. This approach has encouraged
cross-agency collaboration and has cut project permitting time from an
average of 18-24 months down to 10. Reliable data on conservation values
has enabled better decisions about the siting, boundaries and
desirability of solar projects.
Mongolia's Many Means: Development by Design for Landscapes, Wildlife and Culture
vast landscapes are rich with coal, mineral and wind energy resources.
How this resource development takes place will greatly affect the
economy, nomadic livelihoods and the environment. The potential for
conflict over competing claims for land looms large, requiring a
delicate balance to be struck between development and conservation.
Recognizing this challenge, the government of Mongolia has supported landscape-scale planning
for the entire country in support of sustainable development and has
enacted an enlightened planning framework into law. They have embraced
proactive planning, which accounts for biological resources, ecosystem
services, climate change and projected development. This framework for
identifying priority conservation areas and recommended practices at the
outset is allowing the country to better minimize impacts and more
effectively manage environmental and economic risks.
are helping to guide project siting and mitigation, as well as the
establishment of new protected areas that support nomadic livelihoods
and wildlife. The approach includes a commitment to protect 30 percent
of the country. To date, there has been real progress on that
commitment. In roughly the last five years, the government has
designated 150,000 square kilometers of new protected land—an area
approximately the size of Nepal.
Coasts of the Caribbean: Developing Oil Resources in Venezuela's Marine Ecosystems
is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, and its
southern Caribbean basin is a center of extraordinary marine
biodiversity. It is also the source of the country’s plentiful and
economically vital offshore oil resources.
The risks to marine
ecosystems from offshore oil exploration and production are well-known.
But comprehensive planning, as frequently used in terrestrial
developments, has rarely been seen in plans for the development of
Working with Venezuela’s national oil
company, PDVSA and other regional partners, The Nature Conservancy
helped to develop a set of conservation-based standards and practices
for inclusion in the permits for each oil and gas lease. The partnership
shows how collaboration between conservation organizations, petroleum
developers and environmental regulators can work.
In this case
and others, it is vital to identify priority conservation areas and
recommend good practices at the start. Where development must proceed,
the likelihood of negative ecological impacts can be minimized by
sticking to guidelines, policies and contractual requirements. By
helping energy companies engage all parties in avoiding risk from the
outset, decisions can be taken while there is still room for maneuver,
so that ecological values are not irretrievably lost and livelihoods are
not negatively affected.
Power to the People: Pursuing Affordable and Cleaner Energy in India
while renewables are the best path to reduce carbon emissions and other
pollutants that damage human health, wind and solar farms have
significant land footprints. The transmission lines required to transmit
renewable energy into our power grid can further fragment habitats and
become conduits for non-native species that disrupt ecosystems. Our
attempts to meet climate change emission targets and close the energy
access gap could create a new problem of “energy sprawl” that
accelerates land-use change and conflict.
While we can continue
to work towards decoupling economic growth from energy use—and
significant advances have been made in some developed economies—we need
to steer development to already-converted areas and make the most of
existing transmission capacity. We must develop regional energy plans
that avoid the most important natural lands and locate energy production
as close as possible to the industries and houses where it will be
consumed. It’s a huge challenge, but the establishment of
renewables-based micro-grids and new tools that can simulate and
evaluate the economic impact of energy choices give grounds for
optimism. India has the potential to show the rest of the developing
world how to achieve comprehensive access to affordable energy without
compromising on environmental concerns.
Power of Rivers: Securing Sustainable Energy and Healthy Rivers
the world’s largest, most mature and most reliable source of
low-carbon, renewable energy, can play an important role in future
energy systems and contribute to climate goals. But new and existing
hydropower projects must improve significantly in social and
environmental performance. Experience has shown that poorly planned
hydro projects can have enormous environmental and social impacts.
Future forecasts also highlight that 70 percent of new hydropower
expansion is expected to occur in river basins that support the highest
diversity of fish species and high fish productivity. Without success in
reducing environmental and social conflicts, hydropower may not reach
its potential contribution to sustainable energy systems.
around the world show that system-scale approaches to planning and
management, rather than a project-by-project approach, can help solve
many of the challenges associated with hydropower development. A
systemic approach allows government planners and regulators to explore,
compare and choose the best alternative to meet multiple objectives
across a full river basin.
In China, the United States, Brazil and
Mexico, changes to river basin management have reduced impacts to fish
species and human populations while having minimal effect on power
generation capacity. A new report, The Power of Rivers: A Business Case,
explores how this system-scale approach can also avoid project
cancellations, delays and cost overruns. Rather than assessing
individual sequential projects, system planning and modelling can help
governments identify a set of infrastructure investments that deliver
broader benefits to both people and nature.
Fine Feathered Friend: Protecting the Sage Grouse in the United States and Canada
a result of threats from energy development and cultivation, as well as
catastrophic wildfire, invasive annual grasses and conifer invasion,
the greater sage-grouse of western North America and southern Canada was
considered a candidate species for listing under the US Endangered
Species Act (ESA). Against this backdrop of precipitous decline, a
proactive, coordinated, voluntary, and incentive-based effort provided a
clear roadmap for landscape-scale conservation of the species and its
Strategic conservation features prominently in this
story because user groups and state and federal governments wished to
avoid ESA listing, and worked together to reduce threats. Regional
planning and spatial prioritization provided the foundation for partners
to target where to focus conservation efforts, balancing energy needs
and habitat protection. As the primary land managers, the federal Bureau
of Land Management and the US Forest Service completed the bulk of the
public land policy protections. But significant investment was also made
to conserve and enhance an additional five million hectares of private
lands inside sage-grouse strongholds.
The sage-grouse story
to date illustrates how a proactive, coordinated, landscape-scale
conservation approach has the potential to maximize biodiversity
conservation and maintain energy development. And it provides a
real-world model for including biodiversity conservation across all
Colombian Communities: Accounting for Ecosystem Services in Energy Development
countries across Latin America, the competing demands of energy growth
and environmental protection are often considered in the context of a
third challenge: indigenous peoples and local community rights.
Historically in this region, energy development has not always respected
indigenous peoples' rights, and indigenous groups have in some cases
borne the bulk of environmental loss and associated human impacts. These
factors combine to create a complicated context for decision making.
Colombia, The Nature Conservancy has worked with the government to
encourage the incorporation of ecosystem services concepts into
environmental impact assessments and mitigation action relating to
mining projects—developments which are important contributors to energy
resourcing and economic well-being.
Using the concept of
“servicesheds”—areas that provides a specific ecosystem service benefit
to a specific group of people—stakeholders were able to reveal
potentially harmful loss of ecosystem services in advance of their harm.
It allowed land planners, developers and policy makers to consider
alternatives that let energy development progress rapidly without
creating damaging inequalities. The serviceshed method provided a
replicable, robust way to inform energy development, to identify how
proposed development may affect people and to determine whether possible
ecosystem service losses create or worsen inequalities.
Biofuels of Brazil: Sustaining Production Expansion and Environmental Quality
have been embraced as a promising alternative to oil, because in
principle they can reduce carbon emissions, enhance domestic energy
security and revitalize rural economies. But, biofuel feedstocks can use
up to a thousand times more land per unit energy than natural gas, oil,
coal, wind, hydropower or solar.
By 2040, global biofuel
production may double or triple, requiring an additional 44 to 118
million hectares of land—expansion that would exceed a land area
equivalent to the U.S. state of Texas. How this future land conversion
occurs will have a major impact on biodiversity, ecosystems and the
climate, as well as on challenges such as food production.
The Nature Conservancy has investigated the potential for targeted land-use planning
to achieve commodity production and environmental goals in the
Brazilian cerrado, the world’s most diverse tropical savannah. We
applied spatial optimization techniques to map marginal service values,
assess economic and environmental trade-offs, and find efficient
The work has demonstrated that biofuels
production and environmental goals can be met with landscape planning,
even in a biodiversity and agricultural hotspot. Legal, voluntary and
market mechanisms, if effectively implemented and widely adopted by
agricultural producers in affected landscapes, hold promise of
delivering large-scale conservation outcomes in the expanding biofuels
To learn more, check out our new resource: Energy Sprawl Solutions: Balancing Global Development and Conservation. Nature Conservancy scientist Joseph M. Kiesecker is a lead editor (alongside scientist David E. Naugle) of a new book, Energy Sprawl Solutions: Balancing Global Development and Conservation
(Publication Date: June 15, 2017). The book provides a roadmap for an
energy future that conserves functional and connected ecosystems. The
key to success, they show, is identifying the right energy mix and where
to place it. This commonsense solution involves identifying and
preemptively setting aside land where biodiversity should be protected,
while consolidating energy development in areas with lower conservation