Energy Sprawl Pales to Suburban Sprawl

One of the new opposing forces to the deployment of renewable energy has been dubbed “Energy Sprawl,” referring to a symptom of energy sites requiring dubious amounts of land that could purportedly threaten our natural landscape. Where NIMBY voices are troublesome, these claims are more misguided. There is no question that some renewable power options need space. Energy sources like wind and solar require land in order to build arrays large enough to make them efficient, but the real sprawling epidemic has nothing to do with energy, is much worse and has been going on unaddressed for decades: suburban sprawl. Anyone raising arms about devoting land to renewable energy should be prepared to combat the growth of our suburban communities.

energy sprawl vs suburban sprawl

Over the past half century, flight from cities has created an explosion of development in suburbia that claims more virgin land every year. As late as the housing boom that lead up to the current recession, the cost of construction, laxity of zoning laws and ease in security mortgage debt lead to new communities sprouting up across the country almost over night. The result is an ever-expanding network of roadways and a lifestyle driven by automotive travel that breeds inefficiency and waste.

There seems to be a misconception that land used for building new cul-de-sacs wrapped in colonial revival vernacular is somehow less desirable than land used for erecting wind turbines or solar panels. Virgin forest or prime farmland is consumed every year to be subdivided and turned into brand new housing stock. In her book A Field Guide to Sprawl, Dolores Hayden says “the American Farmland Trust estimates that in the United States, 1.2 million acres of farmland were lost to development every year between 1992 and 1997.”

As a point of reference, a solar farm planned for Deming, New Mexico will be one of the biggest in the world, producing up to 300 MW or enough power for 240,000 homes. If completed, the array will require 3,200 acres of land. Using the same ratio of roughly 1 MW per 11 acres of land, the 6 million acres of land consumed for homes in the 1990’s could contribute a maximum capacity of 545,450 MW (545 gigawatts.) According to the Energy Information Association, our total national power generation capacity is in the neighborhood of 995 GW (so over half of our power.)

Unlike energy development, suburban land acquisition does nothing for the natural environment. Its conception lays more roads, erects more power lines and creates more commuting traffic by perpetuating the need for more cars on pavement. The fortunate developments may only waste time, money and resources by laying new sewers while those too far from town or city centers rely instead on septic systems. Despite our best wishes, pouring Drano into a sink that leads to a leeching field is nominally the same as going outside and pouring it on the ground.

Energy installations like wind farms produce clean power and by doing so are diverting generation from sources like coal and oil that can bring damaging effects to the environment along every point of their supply chain from mining to combustion. Modern wind turbines are also usually tall enough that land beneath them can still be farmed. Though some energy arrays may pose some interference with the habitat or migration of natural species (a common attack against wind farm construction), it is estimated that in the U.S. up to 130 million animals are killed on the road every year by cars.

On the other hand, suburban plots produce nothing. They are not havens for animal habits. Unlike the land that they consume, rarely are they net sources of food, clean water or energy. An article by Dan Shapley notes that according to Census Bureau data, in 2006 nine of the ten fastest growing counties were located in the South or West in areas already stressed for the capacity of fresh water. In Dallas Fort-Worth, one of the fastest growing regions in the country, a North Texas Future Fund report states “by 2050 the [water] deficit could reach 1.1 million-acre feet per year — an amount greater than total current demand.”

Like anything else, the construction of renewable energy has its drawbacks but the argument of space does not come close to comparing to the epidemic of waste that comprises our history of limitless suburban expansion.

In honor of Blog Action Day 2009

Photo Credits: Alex Maclean & Sincerely Sustainable