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TNC offers a ‘Goldilocks’ option for saving Western land as wind and solar boom

A large solar farm, consisting of solar panels lined next to each other and angled at the sun, in a California desert.
Tom Brewster Photography for the Bureau of Land Management
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Flickr Creative Commons
Building more solar farms, like this one in a California desert, is one strategy The Nature Conservancy says will help reduce the infrastructure footprint needed for the West to meet its clean energy needs.

The build-out of clean energy infrastructure in the West on its current trajectory would occupy about 39 million acres of land – roughly three-fourths the size of Utah – by 2050. A new study by The Nature Conservancy, however, suggests that the right mix of technologies can cut the amount of land needed in half.

The global environmental nonprofit, in an analysis published this week, estimates that the West’s 11 states could meet net-zero emissions by 2050 with just 21 million acres of infrastructure, such as wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines.

One strategy is to develop fewer wind farms, which require many acres of land and miles of power lines, and build more solar farms near large cities, said Nels Johnson, the group’s North America energy program director.

“That ends up being a really important factor in how we try and optimize between getting to net-zero and protecting the environment,” said Johnson, who’s based in Bozeman, Mont.

Johnson said another important approach would be developing more clean energy infrastructure on lower-quality agricultural lands that have little value due to characteristics like drought, contamination, and low soil productivity.

Johnson also said good planning and the most efficient technology mix could save more than 10 million acres of wildlife habitat and nearly 3 million acres of prime farmland from being developed for clean energy.

The overall cost of this “Goldilocks” scenario – which TNC calls the “High Electrification Scenario” – would be $268 billion through 2050, according to the study. That’s only 3% more expensive annually than staying on the current development track without the increased protections of natural areas and prime farmlands across the West.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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