Land Use Issues of Electricity Production:
On-site and Off-site Land Impacts
What are the land impacts
of generating electricity?
The gigantic central-station, electric generating facilities that provide
the vast bulk of the electricity in the US can occupy acres upon acres
of land just for the power plant components alone. These power plants
also require on-site fuel storage facilities as well as structures for
connecting to the transmission grid, which requires additional land.
Depending on the fuel burned at any one power plant, electricity generators
can leave their sites irrevocably scarred or polluted. Construction
of hydropower dams floods riverside lands, permanently eliminating riparian
and upland habitat. All of these are known as on-site land impacts.
Most generating facilities also produce solid waste by-products
of combustion that can be toxic. Solid wastes from power plants are
typically landfilled, another way in which a generating facility impacts
land as it extends its environmental footprint beyond the boundaries
of the power plant site. In this case, the waste will likely remain
at the landfill forever. Mining, collecting and transporting the natural
gas, coal, oil, and nuclear fuel necessary to generate electricity can
also impact land in much the same way by precluding other uses and leaving
permanent scars. All of these are known as off-site land impacts.
What are the environmental
issues with regard to land use?
- On-site issues
degrade and devalue the land
The average life expectancy of power plants today is 40 years or
more. This figure translates into a potentially major reduction in the
value of the land around the site for at least that period of time.
Even following decommissioning, power plants can leave indelible scars
if fuel was stored on site and the generating facilities leave toxic
residues or other forms of pollution, which often can never be completely
cleaned up. Power plant sites may become sacrifice zones, sealed off
from any future land use due to contamination linked to the operation
of a power plant.
issues have far-reaching impacts on ecosystems and aesthetics.
collection and transporting of fuel can impose severe land-use impacts.
Natural gas pipelines often traverse private land all across the country,
restricting its use and disrupting plant and animal habitat as well
as other potential land uses. Coal mining can chew-up whole hillsides
and mountains, leaving unsafe and unsightly disruptions of landscapes
that may have also represented scenic or recreational values.
Storage of solid waste, both on and off site, can also leave long-lasting
marks. Not only does solid waste storage permanently preclude using the
land for other purposes, but rain can create leachate which, if not properly
contained, can contaminate nearby underground water sources. The impacts
of solid waste are, as a general matter, in direct proportion to volume
and toxicity. Environmentally sound waste disposal techniques can reduce,
but not eliminate, these impacts.
The land impacts of hydropower facilities depend on individual dam design,
location and operation. Land use and ecosystem impacts of facilities that
use large impoundments can be severe. The dam and reservoir may transform
the landscape, obliterate sensitive land resources, and permanently alter
regional land use patterns. In contrast hydropower facilities can also be designed
to limit or offset such impacts.
These negative environmental impacts associated with land use are not
as clear-cut a factor in evaluating a power supply option as are air and
water impacts. A power plant built on land that is not valued for other
uses, and which was sited with the best environmental controls and with
full public input and agreement, may produce few significant environmental
insults to the land. On the other hand, a nuclear reactor, which leaves
behind radioactive wastes that will be with us long after it is decommissioned,
imposes land impacts that can exceed concerns over air or water impacts
associated with another generating technology.
How can consumer
electricity choice address land impacts?
Certain fuel types
leave no permanent land impacts. Renewable solar and wind facilities,
for example, can be dismantled and removed from sites during decommissioning.
Having used no stored fuel, they leave no fuel-related pollution behind.
Similarly, these renewable resources eliminate concerns over fuel collection
or transportation impacts.
that uses the earth's heat to generate electricity may also leave few
permanent on-site or off-site impacts. If the power plant developer harnessed
the heat properly and ensured no contamination of surrounding water supplies,
these resources can be decommissioned without leaving behind major on-site
land impacts. Geothermal facilities also require no national transportation
network for fuel delivery.
that utilize a fuel resource that is sustainably generated, like willow
trees grown for fuel, or unfinished wood waste from a furniture manufacturer,
also leave few on-site or off site land impacts. Though they do produce
solid waste, it is of less toxicity than wastes from fossil fuel resources.
Biomass power plants that combust sustainably-generated wood waste streams
to create electricity also reduce the amount of solid waste earmarked
for landfills, which extends the life of these already crowded facilities.
Choosing a power
supplier that sells electricity derived from wind, solar or low impact
biomass in its mix reduces the direct impacts that your electric supply
can have on land. The advent of retail competition offers consumers for
the first time the opportunity to directly influence the environmental
footprint of electric power production. In several states, suppliers are
assembling resource portfolios that are significantly cleaner and more
dependent upon renewable energy sources. By selecting one of these resource
portfolios, you will help ensure that the generation that supplies the
power system are those that minimize on-site and off-site land impacts.
You will also be sending a powerful signal to power plant developers that
consumers prefer that their power supply come from sustainable energy
The Energy Project, Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, How
the West Can Win: A Blueprint for a Clean and Affordable Energy Future
ESEERCO, New York State Environmental Externalities Cost Study Vol. 1
Pace University Center for Environmental Legal Studies, Environmental
Costs of Electricity (1990).