Is This Town Big Enough for the Two of Us?
How much space should Missouri dedicate to energy production?
A study released earlier this year from the Brookings Institute drew attention to an often-overlooked aspect of electricity generation—land use.
The determining factor for the amount of land an energy source needs for its operations is power density. Power density measures the amount of land needed to produce a given amount of energy. Each energy source has its own power density. Fossil fuels are quite power-dense by nature, whereas wind and solar power are less dense by several orders of magnitude. In fact, wind and solar energy can require up to 100 times more space than a natural gas plant to generate an equivalent amount of electricity.
The power densities of several forms of electricity generation can be seen below. The higher the median power density (red dot) is, the less space it takes to generate electricity.
These results have important implications for Missouri. Land use for energy purposes was a contentious topic this past legislative session, with overt and covert attempts to block the developers of a wind energy transmission line from using eminent domain to acquire land.
Land is scarce and has competing uses. Currently, however, Missouri’s Renewable Energy Standard mandates an increasing amount of electricity be generated by the least power-dense sources. The Standard requires 15 percent of electricity come from renewable sources by next year, and an initiative petition circulating proposes to increase that number to 50 percent by 2040. Meeting these mandates would require either a significant buildout or utilities buying power from out of state.
The scholars who created the above graph note that “increasing the U.S. renewable energy portfolio will increase land-use, presenting challenges for other sectors such as agriculture.” This concern is especially relevant for Missouri, as agriculture, forestry, and related industries are among Missouri’s top industries and constitute 10 percent of the state’s employment. Missouri is one of the top states in the country for farm operations, soybean production, and beef cattle production, with farmland constituting two-thirds of state land area.
Missourians should be wary of green energy mandates that require massive land use. Shouldn’t land use be driven by fair competition and markets, not government mandates?