Trends in US wind projects, technology development and land use
Meeting U.S. decarbonization goals is expected to require rapid deployment of additional wind energy. As more wind is deployed, social and ecological considerations of the surrounding landscape are becoming increasingly important—but research on the land use impacts of wind deployment has been limited.
Through comprehensive spatial analysis of U.S. wind power facilities deployed over the past two decades, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) studied the emerging intersection of wind energy deployment and the environment—advancing our understanding of how evolving wind technology and plant design are changing land use requirements.
"The impact of wind power on the landscape is distinct and highly nuanced," said Dylan Harrison-Atlas, researcher at NREL and lead author of an Environmental Research Letters article. "Our data-driven analysis can inform future turbine and plant design and deployments, helping foster society's conservation and decarbonization goals."
A standardized methodology
In recent years, many metrics have been proposed to quantify the land use impacts of wind projects, but none have captured the complexity of real-world deployments.
NREL developed a standardized approach using geospatial analysis of turbine locations to evaluate interactions with the surrounding landscape. The approach holistically considers characteristics of the geographic footprint to characterize the nature of impact, proximity to built structures and neighboring wind plants, and accounts for design and life-cycle characteristics of turbines to determine land area requirements and land use intensity.
"It's a flexible approach that we can continue to use to track the dynamic interactions between wind energy and the environment," Harrison-Atlas said.
NREL used this approach to study U.S. wind deployments from 2000 to 2020—highlighting trends in land use that can help researchers, technology designers, land use managers, and policymakers envision future high-wind energy systems that meet clean energy, social, and environmental goals.
Historical trends in wind deployment
NREL finds the total U.S. wind footprint—or the cumulative land contained within the outermost bounds of contemporary U.S. wind plants—is equivalent to the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. However, only a small fraction of that area (<1%–4%) is estimated to be directly impacted or permanently occupied by physical wind energy infrastructure.
Most deployments are in the South Central and Great Plains regions, followed by the Great Lakes, Pacific, Mountain, and Northeast regions. The Southwest and Southeast have fewer deployments. Most wind plants are on private land, with less than 2% of the national installed wind capacity located on public land. This could change with evolving federal priorities and policies.
Nationally, median wind plant sizes have increased from 12 to 180 megawatts since 2000, and the average wind project has 51 turbines. Most of these projects tend to be deployed in clusters, both locally and regionally.
Importantly, NREL finds that although wind projects are requiring more land per megawatt of capacity due to deployment of larger rotors, improvements in performance have resulted in no change to the amount of power they can produce per unit area.
NREL finds wind power generally has low impact on the surrounding landscape, with most U.S. wind deployments occurring within croplands and in the temperate grassland biome. In addition, wind plants are increasingly developed on land that is already used for other forms of human activity. Surprisingly, most turbines tend to be near buildings—65% of all U.S. turbines are located within one kilometer from a structure. The average distance between turbines and built structures serves as a proxy for understanding local exposure to wind projects. Using that proxy, NREL finds local exposure to wind projects varies throughout the country but is generally greatest in Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Northeast regions.
Insights for the future
Continuing to deploy wind on croplands and in areas with existing infrastructure could minimize additional impacts on the landscape, but ambitious U.S. decarbonization goals will likely expand wind into different ecological settings.
"We have a responsibility to consider conservation objectives in the regions where these technologies are being deployed," said Anthony Lopez, geospatial data scientist at NREL and co-author of the study. "It's going to become even more important to track land use and design wind plants that minimize impact to ensure sustainable deployment."
NREL suggests that strategic innovation in turbine technology and plant design will be important for sustainable management of wind energy. For example, innovations such as turbine scaling could help maximize energy density with fewer turbines and less required capacity, even in locations with relatively lower wind resource quality. NREL will continue to track the dynamics of wind deployment to monitor ongoing changes in its land use.
More information: Dylan Harrison-Atlas et al, Dynamic land use implications of rapidly expanding and evolving wind power deployment, Environmental Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac5f2c