Net-Zero by 2050 while Minimizing Land-Use Impacts? Power of Place report says YES

It's estimated that if we continue to site energy infrastructure as usual, the U.S. will need an area larger than Texas to meet net-zero by 2050. Now that Congress has allocated billions of dollars to the clean energy transition, the expansion of new renewable energy and electric transmission infrastructure is expected to hasten its stride. However, if the infrastructure footprint expands while adhering to the current patterns of energy development, it could trample upon natural habitats, wildlife, working lands, and communities.

We’re already seeing the land-use conflicts unfold. In states like Iowa, California, and Colorado, growth in clean energy development activity has corresponded with increased implementation of new siting ordinances and restrictions, which create risk and uncertainty for the development process. If the U.S. continues down this path, the resulting conflicts risk slowing down the transition to clean energy, and the nation could miss it's decarbonization goal.

field of flowers

Fortunately, new guidance from the Power of Place-National report provides insight into how to overcome this barrier. The report sets out a vision for how the U.S. can get to net-zero by 2050, while achieving better outcomes for climate, conservation, and communities. It explores the types of clean generation technology portfolios and siting strategies that should be deployed across the country to minimize their environmental and social impacts. Moreover, it delves into the crucial aspect of cost to minimizing these impacts.

Power of Place researchers developed a new way to analyze energy generation choices beyond the usual methods. They used detailed information about the environmental and society to create an impact scoring system, which helped decide which places have good wind and solar resources and are most environmentally and socially suitable for hosting energy projects.  The resulting energy “supply curves” were then plugged into an energy capacity expansion model and cost-optimized, resulting in different clean energy mixes that varied depending on the extent of the environmental and social impacts. The model also considered strategies to reduce land use, such as combining solar and wind energy in the same location, or integrating solar panels with crop production (agrivoltaics). The full methodology is available in a technical briefing.

Overall, the results from Power of Place-National are optimistic: with careful and coordinated planning and robust community engagement, the U.S. can build the clean energy infrastructure needed for economy-wide, net-zero emissions by 2050, while avoiding most impacts to sensitive natural and working lands.


When reducing the total amount of environmental and social impacts, several notable shifts in technology choices occurred. First, the mix of generation technologies shifted to favor less onshore wind and more solar PV, including utility-scale arrays, small-scale urban solar, and rooftop panels. It’s worth noting, however, that the total capacity of wind deployed is many times more than what is installed today. Second, capacity from agrivoltaics increased more than threefold, and fixed-tilt solar capacity doubled. Third, while wind and solar co-location capacity decreased in lower impact scenarios, reducing overall onshore wind capacity, several hundred gigawatts of co-located projects appeared to be cost-competitive across the majority of scenarios.

Another remarkable finding from the study is that there is no one-size-fits all strategy to reach net-zero, and regional differences must be considered when planning and siting new technologies. The dominant strategies for reducing impacts vary considerably across different regions due to variation in ecosystems, wildlife, land use, and energy resource potential. For example, the solar capacity in the Northeast is dominated by fixed-tilt PV, while nearly all solar capacity in the Southwest is single-axis tracking. Agrivoltaics accounts for nearly half of the solar capacity in the Northwest, but is far less prominent in other agricultural regions due to the distribution of agrivoltaic-amenable crops (especially vegetables and fruit) in the U.S. 

The model found enormous benefits for nature. When it reduced environmental and social impacts by 70 percent, it found that less than 2 percent of all habitat and ecosystem types examined were affected. Said differently, up to 98 percent of intact landscapes, wetlands, forests, and habitats for bats, grouse, and whooping cranes remained unimpacted by the development of new renewables.

sunsets forest lineSociety can also reap great benefits from siting clean energy technologies in low-impact ways. Under current siting practices, roughly 6,000 square miles of highly productive farmlands would need to be converted to renewable energy to meet decarbonization goals. By mindfully selecting clean energy portfolios, we can avoid impacts to a third of these croplands. At the same time, lower impact scenarios achieved greater deployment of wind and solar projects in communities that have historically been economically driven by the fossil fuel industry, bringing renewable energy jobs and other economic benefits to areas that historically or currently host fossil fuel extraction, processing, and generation facilities. In the 70 percent impact reduction scenario, about one-third of all renewable development occurred in these Inflation Reduction Act defined energy communities.

The U.S. is expected to spend $1.87 trillion on the clean energy transition. A lower-impact buildout comes with an added cost of about 6.3 percent, but may be offset by lower project cancellation rates, shorter permitting times, and lower monitoring and mitigation costs. On top of that, avoiding conversion of natural areas and croplands and reducing harmful impacts to communities yields economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Due to the considerable land area requirements of the expansion of clean energy infrastructure to meet decarbonization goals, strategies to alleviate land use conflict are becoming increasingly valuable. Power of Place-National reveals that, through spatial modeling, we can anticipate and understand the impacts on land use. This knowledge is crucial for prioritizing policies that minimize negative consequences and promote responsible land-use transition. By employing these strategies, we can pave the way for a hopeful and accelerated transition towards a sustainable future. 


Grace Wu, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at University of California Santa Barbara and a research scientist for the Power of Place study.

Joe Fargione is Director of Science, North America Region of The Nature Conservancy

Emily Leslie is Principal at Montara Mountain Energy, a small energy consulting firm that specializes in geospatial planning, and provides technical support to policymakers in local, state, and federal governments.

Ryan Jones is Co-founder of Evolved Energy Research

Nels Johnson is Senior Practice Advisor, Renewable Energy Deployment at The Nature Conservancy

Christel Hiltibran is Climate and Energy Project Manager and Power of Place Project Manager at The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy is a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature can thrive.

The Nature Conservancy |

Author: Grace Wu, PhD, Joe Fargione, Emily Leslie, Ryan Jones, Nels Johnson, and Christel Hiltibran