Power Scorecard Home Page

Home

Ratings

Electricity and the
environment


Technologies

Issues:

Air
Climate change
Acid rain
Ozone (smog)
Toxics (mercury)

Water
Water use
Water quality

Land
On-site impacts
Off-site impacts

Related sites

 




Land Use Issues of Electricity Production:
On-site and Off-site Land Impacts



What are the land impacts of generating electricity?

  • On-site
    The gigantic central-station, electric generating facilities that provide the vast bulk of the electricity in the US can occupy acres upon acres of land just for the power plant components alone. These power plants also require on-site fuel storage facilities as well as structures for connecting to the transmission grid, which requires additional land. Depending on the fuel burned at any one power plant, electricity generators can leave their sites irrevocably scarred or polluted. Construction of hydropower dams floods riverside lands, permanently eliminating riparian and upland habitat. All of these are known as on-site land impacts.

  • Off-site
    Most generating facilities also produce solid waste by-products of combustion that can be toxic. Solid wastes from power plants are typically landfilled, another way in which a generating facility impacts land as it extends its environmental footprint beyond the boundaries of the power plant site. In this case, the waste will likely remain at the landfill forever. Mining, collecting and transporting the natural gas, coal, oil, and nuclear fuel necessary to generate electricity can also impact land in much the same way by precluding other uses and leaving permanent scars. All of these are known as off-site land impacts.


What are the environmental issues with regard to land use?

  • On-site issues degrade and devalue the land
    The average life expectancy of power plants today is 40 years or more. This figure translates into a potentially major reduction in the value of the land around the site for at least that period of time. Even following decommissioning, power plants can leave indelible scars if fuel was stored on site and the generating facilities leave toxic residues or other forms of pollution, which often can never be completely cleaned up. Power plant sites may become sacrifice zones, sealed off from any future land use due to contamination linked to the operation of a power plant.


  • Off-site issues have far-reaching impacts on ecosystems and aesthetics.
    The mining, collection and transporting of fuel can impose severe land-use impacts. Natural gas pipelines often traverse private land all across the country, restricting its use and disrupting plant and animal habitat as well as other potential land uses. Coal mining can chew-up whole hillsides and mountains, leaving unsafe and unsightly disruptions of landscapes that may have also represented scenic or recreational values.

Storage of solid waste, both on and off site, can also leave long-lasting marks. Not only does solid waste storage permanently preclude using the land for other purposes, but rain can create leachate which, if not properly contained, can contaminate nearby underground water sources. The impacts of solid waste are, as a general matter, in direct proportion to volume and toxicity. Environmentally sound waste disposal techniques can reduce, but not eliminate, these impacts.

The land impacts of hydropower facilities depend on individual dam design, location and operation. Land use and ecosystem impacts of facilities that use large impoundments can be severe. The dam and reservoir may transform the landscape, obliterate sensitive land resources, and permanently alter regional land use patterns. In contrast hydropower facilities can also be designed to limit or offset such impacts.

(See also the Hydropower technology page and the Water Consumption and Water Quality issue pages for more information of the land impacts of hydropower.)

These negative environmental impacts associated with land use are not as clear-cut a factor in evaluating a power supply option as are air and water impacts. A power plant built on land that is not valued for other uses, and which was sited with the best environmental controls and with full public input and agreement, may produce few significant environmental insults to the land. On the other hand, a nuclear reactor, which leaves behind radioactive wastes that will be with us long after it is decommissioned, imposes land impacts that can exceed concerns over air or water impacts associated with another generating technology.


How can consumer electricity choice address land impacts?

Certain fuel types leave no permanent land impacts. Renewable solar and wind facilities, for example, can be dismantled and removed from sites during decommissioning. Having used no stored fuel, they leave no fuel-related pollution behind. Similarly, these renewable resources eliminate concerns over fuel collection or transportation impacts.

Geothermal technologies that uses the earth's heat to generate electricity may also leave few permanent on-site or off-site impacts. If the power plant developer harnessed the heat properly and ensured no contamination of surrounding water supplies, these resources can be decommissioned without leaving behind major on-site land impacts. Geothermal facilities also require no national transportation network for fuel delivery.

Biomass facilities that utilize a fuel resource that is sustainably generated, like willow trees grown for fuel, or unfinished wood waste from a furniture manufacturer, also leave few on-site or off site land impacts. Though they do produce solid waste, it is of less toxicity than wastes from fossil fuel resources. Biomass power plants that combust sustainably-generated wood waste streams to create electricity also reduce the amount of solid waste earmarked for landfills, which extends the life of these already crowded facilities.

Choosing a power supplier that sells electricity derived from wind, solar or low impact biomass in its mix reduces the direct impacts that your electric supply can have on land. The advent of retail competition offers consumers for the first time the opportunity to directly influence the environmental footprint of electric power production. In several states, suppliers are assembling resource portfolios that are significantly cleaner and more dependent upon renewable energy sources. By selecting one of these resource portfolios, you will help ensure that the generation that supplies the power system are those that minimize on-site and off-site land impacts. You will also be sending a powerful signal to power plant developers that consumers prefer that their power supply come from sustainable energy sources.


References:

The Energy Project, Land and Water Fund of the Rockies, How the West Can Win: A Blueprint for a Clean and Affordable Energy Future (1996).

ESEERCO, New York State Environmental Externalities Cost Study Vol. 1 (1995).

Pace University Center for Environmental Legal Studies, Environmental Costs of Electricity (1990).


©2000 Pace University, White Plains, New York
Design ©2000 Baseline Institute, Lafayette, Colorado