Idea #24

Design and Planning for Multi-Use Renewable Energy Infrastructures

by Nicholas Pevzner

A major challenge of the renewable energy transition is renewable energy’s much larger spatial footprint on the landscape compared to fossil fuel energy sources. Renewable energy has less energy density compared to coal, oil, and gas, raising questions about the extent of physical space required to deploy the amount of renewable energy generation that is needed to achieve deep decarbonization. Theoretically, this kind of buildout of U.S. renewable energy generation infrastructure is physically possible — the constraints are social, economic, and political. In practical terms, the scaling up of renewable energy generation will create substantial conflicts over land use, which could potentially slow down the energy transition at a time when it in fact needs acceleration. In some states, renewable energy has already come into conflict with forestland or prime farmland as those states pursue aggressive targets for renewable energy development, raising public concerns and preventative policy changes.

Such conflicts can be reduced through careful design and planning, in which renewable energy is deployed across the landscape in a manner that co-exists with other land uses, and enhances rather than competes with them. Numerous examples of wind energy coexisting with agriculture and rangeland (in Texas, for example) point to the potential for beneficial coexistence of this spatially intensive energy technology with farmland. Photovoltaic solar arrays can similarly complement, rather than compete with, agricultural and grazing land. Seven states have adopted pollinator-friendly solar standards that promote the planting of bee and pollinator habitat under and around PV panels; other solar co-location projects have proven the benefit of combining solar photovoltaic with ranching and grazing of sheep or cattle, or with other kinds of agricultural production. But combining energy development with other productive land uses, whether for agriculture or pubic space, is a task that needs careful design and planning, so that both functions can benefit and conflicts can be avoided.

Another strategy for reducing land use pressures and avoiding land use conflicts is renewable energy development on brownfields, including landfills, mine sites, and other contaminated lands. With the addition of renewable energy generation, many of these sites have gained new productive uses, but with careful participatory design and planning some of these sites could be pushed even further in providing community amenities after comprehensive cleanup and decontamination.

The strategy of design and planning for multiple uses carries over to the design of related infrastructure — most importantly, energy transmission infrastructure. Meeting national carbon targets in the U.S. will rely on a sizeable expansion of new long-distance high voltage transmission capacity, as my colleagues here have noted. Currently there  is strong social opposition to new power line construction from landowners and municipalities along the route; a potential avenue for increasing social acceptance of transmission lines can be found through the creation of high-quality public landscapes in the rights-of-way of these power line projects. Multi-purpose infrastructural transmission corridors already provide well-used outdoor recreation in Seattle, for example, where the municipally owned utility co-developed the transmission line with a light rail project and with hiking and bike trail infrastructure. If designed well, these new multifunctional trail networks could connect the American public to their nearby wild lands, be an amenity for recreation and economic development, while supporting the push for a cleaner energy grid.

Public participation in the infrastructure planning process has the potential to reduce public opposition and potential litigation, but all too often, the public is confronted with energy infrastructure projects once virtually all design decisions have been settled, with little public consultation. The public participation early in the planning and development of the Middelgrunden wind farm just off the coast of Copenhagen, along with public investment and cooperative ownership, offers a classic case study in how careful project design can win widespread public support for energy infrastructure development, despite the proximity and visibility of the energy project to some of the most culturally important sites in Copenhagen.

The state of California has deployed spatial planning in its attempt to limit land use conflicts over renewable energy development by issuing its Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which streamlines renewable energy project permitting while steering energy development away from sensitive wildlife conservation areas, using a multi-stakeholder process. In the Netherlands and Denmark, municipalities have gone further, developing detailed spatial plans for proactively accommodating wind turbines as a visual layer of the rural cultural landscape, alongside agriculture and urban development.

Of course, transforming the energy sector on its own is not enough to reduce emissions as deeply as is necessary for full decarbonization by midcentury, but it is a necessary component of the larger strategy known as “electrify everything,” in which other sectors like transportation, heating, and industry switch as much load as possible from combustible liquid fuels to electricity, in order to be ready to take advantage of the rising share of carbon-free electricity on the grid. The second step in the electrify everything strategy is actually deploying the renewable energy generation and storage capacity to decarbonize the electricity supply.

As more energy infrastructure gets planned close to the places where more Americans live, work, and play — both renewable energy generation infrastructure and transmission infrastructure — careful design for co-location and mutually beneficial multiple uses will be key to avoiding land use conflict, reducing NIMBY opposition, and winning public support for these necessary pieces of infrastructure.

Nicholas Pevzner is a full-time lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Scenario Journal.