Decarbonizing the global energy system is no mean task. According to a 2022 McKinsey report [PDF], achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 would cost an additional $3.5 trillion in annual capital expenditure on physical assets for energy and land-use systems. That figure is equivalent to half of all global corporate profits, one-quarter of total tax revenue, or 7 percent of household spending in 2020. However, the clean energy transition is not just about the money. As the United States progresses toward net-zero carbon emissions, it inevitably runs into competing demands for land, driven primarily by land-intensive renewable sources for power generation such as wind and solar.
Not all renewable energy sources are equally land efficient. Maximizing land-use efficiency is critical to ensure that a cleaner energy future does not come at the expense of the unity of American communities and the foundation of the United States’ farmland and food security. Expanding the domestic infrastructure for nuclear energy, one of the cleanest and least land-intensive sources of energy available, could be the most viable strategy.
The United States boasts one of the world’s largest areas of arable land and is a leading global food producer. That abundance has made its citizens complacent: the United States is losing its farmland at an alarming rate without being fully aware of the consequences. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that between 2000 and 2022 U.S. farmland declined by 5.5 percent, with the total acreage shrinking from 954,080,000 to 893,400,000 [PDF]. That staggering loss translates to an area roughly the size of New Jersey and is much larger than the forty million [PDF] acres of U.S. agricultural land held by foreign entities.
U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) recently introduced a bill to bar foreign adversaries—namely, China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia—from buying American farmland. The act was triggered by concerns over Chinese investment in U.S. farmland, although China currently owns less than 1 percent of U.S. foreign-held farmland (Canadian investors hold the largest share -nearly one third - of U.S. foreign-held farmland). Preventing adversaries from investing in U.S. farmland is a necessary but insufficient action. As the United States progresses with its net-zero transition, the public and private sectors should maximize land efficiency for renewable energy sources. If not appropriately managed, electricity production from renewables to meet decarbonization goals could drive up land use and land-cover change, threatening biodiversity and food security and challenging other environmental and social priorities.
According to Bloomberg, the United States currently uses eighty-one million acres to power its economy, about the size of Iowa and Missouri combined and covering roughly 4 percent of the contiguous United States. If the U.S. government and energy industry fail to maximize land efficiency in the energy transition process, replacing less land-intensive fossil fuels with more land intensive clean energy sources will dramatically drive up demand for land. Intensified competition for land use risks exacerbating farmland loss. For example, according to a 2020 Brookings report, electricity generation by wind and solar is at least ten times more land-intensive than coal- or natural gas-fired power plants. A different study, using data from 1,400 real-world observations covering nine electricity sources across 73 countries and 45 U.S. states, also showed that wind and solar are far more land intensive than fossil fuels, and biomass is the least land-efficient source of electricity. To achieve President Joe Biden’s pledge to create a carbon-free economy by 2050, the United States would need the equivalent of four additional South Dakotas to generate sufficient clean power to meet its electricity demand, according to Princeton University estimates and Bloomberg analysis.
The Biden administration has demonstrated a firm commitment to promoting clean energy development in the United States through landmark legislation, such as the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. Policy measures such as subsidies and tax credits make it more lucrative for owners of farms and ranches to lease their land for solar and wind farms in exchange for annual royalty payments. In parts of the country, such as Colorado, solar and wind farms have become the new cash crop, driving a frenzied land rush for renewable energy that has irrevocably altered the landscape. Converting prime agricultural land into clean energy farms has also raised significant concerns and encountered local resistance in rural communities in states such as Texas.
The United States needs a more land-efficient approach. That will require restoring American leadership in nuclear power research, development, and deployment. Researchers have found that nuclear power is by far the most land efficient for electricity generation compared to other energy sources: to generate the same amount of electricity, it needs twenty-seven times less land than coal, eighteen times less than hydropower plants, and thirty-four times less than solar. However, developing nuclear energy has not been a priority in the U.S. energy agenda for decades. Between 2013 and 2021, at least twelve [PDF] U.S. nuclear reactors were shut down (representing 9,436 megawatts of electricity generation capacity) due to rising security costs, competition from wind and solar, and power generated by cheap natural gas, leaving just 92 nuclear reactors operating nationwide.
Not until the recent disruption in global energy markets triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did the U.S. government step up support for its nuclear energy sector. The Biden administration has correctly recognized that maintaining and expanding nuclear power as a source of carbon-free electricity is crucial for reaching its climate commitment. To that end, the Biden administration recently offered $1.2 billion in aid to extend the life of distressed nuclear power plants. The funding is also available for recently closed plants, marking the first time such support has become available.
The challenges of the energy transition to a clean and sustainable future extend beyond monetary costs. The transition requires careful consideration of land use intensity between competing interests and demands. The U.S. government needs to revitalize the domestic nuclear power industry to drive the decarbonized American economy while protecting farmland and food security.