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Study: Focus wind power on 'disturbed land'

A Nature Conservancy analysis finds there is ample space available on agricultural or industrial land to ramp up wind to 20 percent of U.S. electricity.

There's a growing conflict stemming from the push for more renewable energy and the environmental impact of large-scale wind and solar plants. But an analysis from the Nature Conservancy finds that a big boost in wind doesn't have to negatively impact wildlife.

Screen capture by Martin LaMonica/CNET

The conservation group today released a study that argues for a policy to prioritize wind power development on "disturbed land" to avoid threatening wildlife and still ramp up wind generation significantly.

Looking at land-use data across the lower 48 states shows that there is sufficient land in locations to meet the Department of Energy's goal of getting 20 percent of the country's electricity from wind, said Joe Kiesecker, the lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy. Disturbed land could be agricultural land, paved surfaces, or land used for industrial purposes such as oil and gas drilling or mining.

"What this emphasizes is that in the big picture, in a lot of ways we can develop renewable energy, particularly with wind, and there doesn't have to be conflict," Kiesecker said. "We were surprised with the sheer magnitude of the flexibility."

Getting to the goal of 20 percent wind-generated electricity would require ramping up to 241 gigawatts of capacity while the estimated amount of land-based wind on distributed lands is about 3,500 gigawatts, he said.

Habitat fragmentation is the biggest conservation issue in the U.S. and around the world and the overwhelming number of threatened species live on unfragmented land, Kiesecker said.

In some states, the best wind resources are on undisturbed land. But, wind project developers may ultimately save money if states and the federal government set policy based on a broader view of land availability and usage, Kiesecker said. Some projects have been drawn out or cancelled over environmental reasons, he noted.

"Using this kind of forethought and identifying places that are not likely to run into this kind of conflict could ultimately save (wind project developers) money even though they are not exploiting the highest wind power class," he said.

The subject of land use is poised to become prominent as countries develop more renewable energy. Wind is cheaper than solar or geothermal for electricity generation but it has a relatively large footprint per megawatt compared other renewables and fossil fuel generation.