Graphic of the week: Comparing land use of wind and nuclear energy

Land use footprint of wind and nuclear power generation

Nuclear energy is often claimed to be environmentally harmful technology, especially when contrasted with renewables such as wind power.

However, these claims are rarely accompanied by proper sources. This may be because comparisons using actual science do not really support such blanket statements. To take just few examples, a range of studies, including IPCC’s assessments, have consistently found nuclear energy to be among the least carbon intensive methods of energy generation, surpassing even solar photovoltaics. Similarly, most life cycle assessments have found that nuclear energy uses far less materials – such as steel and concrete – per produced energy unit than even renewables (see e.g. Weißbach et al. 2013).

This graphic compares another component of ecosystem damage potential: land use footprint. It is well known that ecosystem degradation and destruction due increased land use is, alongside climate change, one of the greatest threats to Earth’s environmental well-being. Therefore, solutions that reduce our environmental footprint are desirable.

The graphic most likely underestimates the footprint of wind power while overestimating nuclear energy’s footprint. This is because I deliberately ignored material requirements (except uranium), used the most environmentally destructive uranium mining method (open cast mining), overestimated uranium requirements by a factor of four at least, used the most optimistic assumptions regarding wind energy production, and ignored the effects of variability. The latter would, after a certain level of wind energy production is reached (with current technology, perhaps 20-30% of the electricity grid) require perhaps two or three times the number of plants presented here to produce same level of service, or the building of significant backup plants and/or energy storage facilities. If material requirements are accounted for, wind power has 3-10 times larger materials and mining footprint than nuclear (see e.g. supplementary material for aforementioned Weißbach et al. 2013).

I also selected a relatively dense wind farm with short electricity interconnector (the thickest line connecting three wind farms in each segment of the graphic). In addition, I did not draw those parts of access roads that were evidently used for other purposes as well, e.g. public highways.

As wind power generation increases and locations close to existing power lines and already disturbed by human presence are used up, developers must turn their attention to ever more remote sites. These entail longer connectors and more access roads, sometimes encroaching to existing wildlife sanctuaries. Connectors and roads also dissect biomes, and may therefore contribute more to ecosystem damages than one might assume from simply counting the area they occupy.

The alternative, offshore wind, does not need access roads, but it will still disturb marine ecosystems if not sited properly.

However, please note that none of the above is to be construed as an argument against wind farms or renewable energy in general. Compared to fossil fuels, they are still much less destructive to health and environment – by far – and proper siting can alleviate many of the potential hazards. My only aim is to show that the claim “nuclear harmful – renewables benign” is far more complicated than it appears.

As always, you are free to spread this graphic as you see fit.

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About J. M. Korhonen

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23 Responses to Graphic of the week: Comparing land use of wind and nuclear energy

  1. Update: actual area taken up by wind power in the graphic above (90 x 33 turbines) is approximately 202 square kilometers. Actual area taken up by nuclear power is approximately 13.3 square kilometers. The image has been updated as well. Thanks to Rauli Partanen for doing the pixel counts; check out his blog at http://www.kaikenhuippu.com if you haven’t already.

  2. Update 2: As some commentators have pointed out elsewhere, the graphic does not specifically include land use for uranium enrichment and fuel fabrication. I did consider adding them, but the share of an individual (or even three) reactor from the land use of enrichment/fabrication is so small that it would be barely visible here. As the mining requirement is here overestimated by at least a factor of four, I felt that would cover miscellaneous details such as these.

    If you like, you may consider the small area southeast from the reactors (housing, apparently) to represent the share of enrichment and fuel fabrication allocated to these reactors.

  3. bob says:

    You can’t use the land under a nuclear power plant or uranium mine for agriculture or anything else whereas this is possible for wind. So the land use should realistically only take into account access and the footprint of the wind turbines. Of course, you can’t just put a wind farm anywhere, or in residential areas like you can with a nuclear plant or solar PV.

    • Actually, this diagram accounts only for only access roads, immediate electricity connection, and wind turbine footprint. The area between them is not counted in the figures. It’s possible that technical limitations of our rough computation may have caused some exaggeration, but I doubt that’s significant.

      Furthermore, the calculation ignores completely the land use requirement for backup power or energy storage. If one wishes to compare the service provided by wind or solar to service provided by nuclear, these must be included. Using the most common backup power generator, coal plant, the equivalent wind power generation would need about the same land area (or more) than nuclear – just for backup purposes.

      Additionally, there are some credible arguments about biome destruction due to, say, road construction that cuts biomes into small, unviable parcels. However, these impacts need to be calculated on a case by case basis.

  4. Unlike access roads and electricity connections, safety zone has practically no effect whatsoever upon wildlife and nature; in fact, one could argue it doubles as a natural reserve. But you’re right that 13.3 km^2 is not quite fair and balanced – the actual nuclear footprint is somewhat smaller. What’s more, it could be made significantly smaller by more efficient reactors.

    As you may have noted, this blog is in English and the purpose is to provide broad context and perspective. It’s a fact that the area above can house 27 TWh annual production and will in all likelihood do so. If I had wanted to skew the numbers for nuclear, I could have used, for example, French reactor plants that have six reactors and can produce up to 50 TWh on what’s effectively about the same land area.

    • Rami Niemi says:

      Access roads increase the value of forests. Probably order magnitude greater impact comes from the rent of land which is about 4000€-10000€/turbine/a. That has started to change the attitude of land owners. Can say the same about areas in proximity of a reactor?

      By far the most important aspect of this all is that the area is in no way the limiting factor in either forms of energy production. So why the smoke screen? I’d rather discus the cost of energy.

      • I know this may come as a surprise to some people, but there are other values than just economic ones. I’m an environmentalist and consider the destruction of natural habitats – which can happen when you cut the biome into too small pieces with e.g. roads – something that needs to be curtailed as much as possible.

        Even if we technically have the land area for purely renewable generation, avoiding severe ecosystem damage is also an important consideration. The scope of “windustrial sprawl” WILL cause severe problems in this regard far before we’re even close to 100% renewables target. That, by the way, is something that’s very rarely if ever mentioned by modern NGOs, who seem to be very happy in their role as uncritical messenger boys for renewable industry lobbyists. Speaking of which, are you completely unconcerned that two out of three key authors of “Greenpeace’s” energy reports are salaried employees of two major industry lobbying organizations?

        But if you want to discuss just value for money, that’s fine with me. I just heard from guys at Ekoenergia that for the price of Pyhäjoki plant (which you wanted to use as an example) we could increase wind power installations tenfold in Finland. That’s an annual increase of about 5 TWh of carbon-free power generation. (I’ll be generous to wind power and ignore emissions and costs from firming up the fluctuating generation, and the costs from grid connections.)

        I’m all for increasing renewable production, because at this stage we need everything we can get, but the thing is that Pyhäjoki plant will increase carbon-free power generation by 9 to 9.5 TWh per annum. According to economic analysis they taught at the Helsinki University of Technology, that’s nearly twice as much value for money. And that’s before we even consider that nuclear plants provide a service that stochastics (wind farms and solar panels) simply cannot do on their own, namely dispatchable power generation.

      • Robert Budd says:

        Here in Ontario Canada we have a good comparator in Bruce Nuclear and a number of large (>100mw) wind developments. The communities around the nuclear plant have the highest per capita incomes, education levels and property values in this region.
        To contrast that the wind development is seeing a disturbing loss in residential saleability within it’s footprint to the point of actual abandonment of homes and certainly appears to be driving a depopulation scenario. Yes lease income to a small portion of the population is significant, but it’s poorly distributed. It’s fair to say here that nuclear lifts all boats and wind lifts a few dramatically and depresses many more.
        As far as turbine access roads being a benefit…I disagree. Fragmentation of actual forests (not plantations) is a serious problem that access roads certainly contribute to. That has to be a negative vaalue in real world terms. Bruce nuclear on the other hand is a favoured location for local field naturalist clubs.
        On agricultural land the access roads certainly reduce efficiency of field work, often increasing headlands and resevoirs of weed species. The wind industry here likes to use the 2 acres/turbine figure for loss, but in reality we are seeing closer to 4 acres with long access roads to the back of most farms. The largest loss of prime ag land in Ontario right now is certainly turbine development.
        It’s very hard to understand why these low density energy sources ( wind/solar) have benefited from so much advocacy when one of the two major challenges humanity faces is accomodating 10 billion people and still leaving some undisturbed areas for a few other species. Nuclear’s footprint is a huge advantage in that regard.

      • Thanks Robert, that’s interesting. Jury is still out regarding effects on property values here in Finland, although I suspect that our summer cottage owners – which constitute a very sizable chunk of population – aren’t usually very happy to see turbines “blight” “their” shorelines.

        However, the uneven distribution of wind power benefits is something that’s very visible here in Finland as well; an acquaintance worked for a energy company and had to repeatedly (as in several times per month) try to negotiate with disappointed landowners who had wanted a piece of the action. Sometimes, though, the problem seemed to be more that the neighbor got the benefits, rather than that the owner did not…

        The real problem with this, in my opinion, is that disappointment turns very easily to NIMBY, and when neighboring landowners start to drag their feet, that can really complicate – and therefore slow – renewable deployment. I think that more optimistic assessment of on-shore wind power potential have not really accounted for NIMBY, not just in the form of opposition to wind turbines itself, but also in the form of opposition to grid expansion. Which, I hear, is already a serious problem that’s actually slowing down “Energiewende” in Germany.

  5. Rami Niemi says:

    I must admit that i’m not as green as you are; truck roads in the forest sting in no way in my heart. But the 5 TWh. If you are allowed with your own facts maybe i’m allowed to present my own. Pyhäjoki plant will cost 6 G€, wind power costs 1.4 €/W (over estimate) and produces 3000h(under estimate). These add up 12.9TWh not 5 TWh. And rest assured i’m not going to quote Greenpeace.

    • So where, then, are your facts coming from? :)

      According to VTT (http://www.vtt.fi/proj/windenergystatistics/), average capacity factor for Finnish wind power in 2012 was 19.1%, i.e. ≈ 1700 hours, not 3000 hours. I find it more realistic to use actual data rather than projections, although I admit that proper siting could increase capacity factor to perhaps 30%. That would mean some 2630 hours; but it’s not clear whether 30% is always achievable.

      3000 hours would be 34.2%, which is achievable but rare with land-based wind power, and nearly double the actual average. Most definitely it’s not a pessimistic estimate.

      Here’s a recent (2012) presentation from Tuulivoimayhdistys – the estimate for electricity costs for new turbines is 73 €/MWh, when turbines are built to optimal locations. Remember, Pyhäjoki promises to deliver less than 50 €/MWh – and we don’t have the optimal locations for more than perhaps 30 TWh of wind power in total.

      http://www.vei.fi/files/pdf/704/WIND_POWER3_Mikkonen.pdf

      As to costs, you’re also ignoring the difference in lifetime. Wind turbines are designed to last maybe 25 years, and there are indications that 20 years may be more realistic in many cases, especially near to coasts (where salt spray can be a surprisingly large problem). Be it as it may, new nuclear is designed for 60 years and life extension to 80 years is believed possible. So even if one would stretch the truth and say that wind plants last 30 years, you’d need to build two in the lifetime of one nuclear power plant. This kind of cuts into your long-term profitability, even if one believes wind turbine costs will decrease significantly.

      Anyway, this argument is moot. IPCC pretty much concluded that renewables alone are most probably not going to be enough & fast enough to avert the climate crisis, so we’re going to need both renewables and nuclear. See here:

      http://jmkorhonen.net/2013/10/03/graphic-of-the-week-the-great-80-of-worlds-energy-could-be-generated-from-renewables-fallacy/

  6. Rami Niemi says:

    If you’d care to read the VTT statistics you’d notice that the 19% CF is not representative for state of the art wind turbines, and much less to those coming online in year 2023. As you knew, this due to increased hub height and increased “swept area to rated power” ratio. Figure 13 shows CF:s for under 50m to be (for previous ten years) 20%, 50m-70m 23% and in category over 70m its already 29%. Most resent data by VTT shows that modern 100m hub height with 120 yielded (in Röyttä) 34%-40% (3000h-3500h). http://www.vtt.fi/inf/pdf/technology/2013/T74.pdf

    Standard hub height now, two years after the röyttä farm, is 140m (doing the math shows its 40% increase in 2 years). 160m is already in a catalogue and 10 years from now its probably even more. And if its more economical to streamline the production of 140m tower in stead of increasing height that’s just fine. So 3000h is reserved underestimation for this purpose.

    Tuulivoimayhdistys is a lobbying organization and it lobbies for larger, longer and wider subsidy. To get 73€/MWh the method was not disclosed or the comparison to other forms was not possible. To get high production cost from you only need high internal rate of return say 10% and high external rate say 6% and payback in 12-15 years. I know cause i’ve done it. For comparison (productionlife, fuels, O&M, etc) i’d use: http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/pdf/electricity_generation.pdf

    Nuclear: 108.4 $/MWh
    Wind: 86.6 $/MWh
    NGCC 65.6 $/MWh

    To Build nuclear power for example in China makes perfect sense: “According to CGNPC, the first-phase project of the nuclear power station got a total investment of 50.2 billion yuan (8.13 billion U.S. dollars), and would include the construction of two units using the Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) technology, with each unit capacity up to 1,750 MW.”

    http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90778/8376690.html

    Nuclear in China: 6.1 G€/ (2*1750MW)

    Nuclear in Finland: 8.6 G€/ 1600MW

    • As I mentioned, I’m aware that new turbines can achieve better capacity factors than 19%. However, I reserve the judgment until we have data; what you say are extremely good news, but whether they’re applicable more widely remains to be seen. Unexpected problems may crop up: for example, it is not certain whether local opposition makes it more difficult to install higher turbines.

      If you want to move the goalposts by arguing what may be possible in ten or twenty years, that’s your prerogative. In that case, I could counter with what may be possible with nuclear in the same timeframe (like modular S-PRISM reactors), and the discussion goes absolutely nowhere.

      Furthermore, the source you cite does not account for grid firming costs. When you compare dispatchable power sources with non-dispatchable power sources and ignore grid effects, you’re comparing apples and oranges. If you’ve been involved with power generation, you really should know this.

      You also cherry-pick what’s probably the most troubled nuclear power plant project in recent history and imply that it’s representative of the cost of nuclear in Finland. According to your own numbers, the Pyhäjoki plant (which you wanted to use as an example, remember) seems to be a bargain.

      Finally, as I noted, the entire discussion is moot insofar as environmental protection is concerned. To reach meaningful environmental targets, we most probably need both renewables AND nuclear; spending energy fighting between them is a waste of time.

      And if environmental protection is not the goal, then why bother with wind or nuclear at all? Burning stuff works just fine.

  7. Rami Niemi says:

    Data is there.

    I dont need to move goalposts cause the nuclear goalpost is already 10 years away. Wind power takes 18 to build. And furthermore, it can be build according demand in short term. About future of nuclear power (modularity, new fuels,etc), I could not agree more. Even more so, I believe that potential for really cheep nuclear power far greater than that of wind power. Research, however, still suffers the 30 year gap in funding. The real danger for current mega projects is that in 20 years real breakthroughs can destroy profiatbility, e.g. modular nuclear, algae biofuels..

    Dispatch-ability is a problem only after a level which is still far away in most regions. BEfore that and someway after wind beats nuclear. Until that level is reached the capital is best used in wind.

    Cherry-picking? Flamanville, ol3, pyhäjoki, Hinkley c. All hover at and above 5€/W region. And what about “sets a price of £90-92 per MWhr” for Hinkley, for 35 years?

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/44ad0ee4-3295-11e3-91d2-00144feab7de.html#axzz2hm1PT5IR

    Btw 50€/MWh in Pyhäjoki (according to ceo Ottavainen) was called the watershed on whether or not the reactor is to be build. This is not impossible, but requires near zero interest rate financing. Rosatom, in my view, is in position to deliver such deal. Again, the same zero interest rate would be even more favorable for wind power.

    • Data for one experimental turbine, when the requirements are in the thousands? I’m fully prepared to believe you may be correct, but you really do not have data. For example, how should we assess the NIMBY opposition to higher turbines?

      But please note that you’re comparing theoretical wind turbine projects to actual nuclear plant projects. I can accept that under favorable conditions, it could be possible to build say, wind power faster and cheaper than it’s possible to build nuclear. But will that happen? The entire Danish wind experiment produces some 10-11 TWh of non-dispatchable power; OL3 alone will provide 13 TWh of dispatchable power. If it comes online in 2016, it will have been built twice as fast.

      Furthermore, in environmental terms, if mere 5% of nuclear’s financing goes to fossil plants instead of renewables, the net result is an environmental disaster in terms of CO2 emissions. I simply do not see that 100% of nuclear investment would actually go towards renewables; the alternatives are never going to be nuclear and renewables, it’s going to be nuclear – or renewables and fossil fuels.

      If you’re able to get funding for wind park on the same terms that Rosatom is offering, by all means go and build a plant – I’ll be the last person to say anything negative. Why, then, are you so mad about nuclear? Like I said, Pyhäjoki seems to be a bargain, and if the Russian taxpayer wants to finance it, I’m not complaining.

      And you still ignore the difference in lifetime.

      Furthermore, this discussion is still moot because we most probably need both renewables and nuclear. And dispatchability is still important, because you’re missing the reason why marginal increase in stochastic generation will not cause undue problems to the grid: that’s because we currently have enough conventional (i.e. hydro and fossil) capacity to manage the fluctuations. But the goal (for me, at least) is to largely eliminate burning by in about 2050, which happens to be the goal that OECD for example calls necessary. The danger here is that large stochastic supply will lock us in to burning fossil fuels.

  8. Rami Niemi says:

    Nuclear project with other peoples tax money is now confirmed:

    http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/00eff456-3979-11e3-a3a4-00144feab7de.html?siteedition=intl#axzz2iL6rirwK

    Again new price tag for nuclear: 10.6 G€/1.6GW

    • …and renewable subsidies come from magical wallet somewhere?

      The UK strike price for nuclear is still the lowest of all low-carbon strike prices promised by the government, using taxpayer money. See here:

      http://www.marklynas.org/2013/06/is-solar-really-four-times-the-cost-of-nuclear-no-but/

      Nuclear: £89.50-92.50/MWh
      Onshore wind: £100/MWh (which, by the way, is running into huge difficulties in the UK, because of NIMBY)
      Solar: £125/MWh
      Offshore wind: £155/MWh
      Tidal or wave: £305/MWh

      By the way, if renewables built with one’s own money are such money-makers as you imply, why on Earth are you spending your days here dissing nuclear power, instead of making barrels of money by building renewables?

  9. You are way off per @MZJacobson, “footprint of wind is limited to the point at which the windmill touches the ground” http://www.fusionenergyleague.org/index.php/blog/article/solutions_project_just_add_nuclear Also, you aren’t calculating the positive effects of Hurricane calming brought to you by 160,000 offshore 5MW wind turbines.

    I’m still having a hard time visualizing the wind impacts. Your graphic above looks like some abstract lines – wallpaper. What we need are some glasses to put on and project the augmented reality in front of us, walk through our back yards (NIMBY land) and see the impact.

    Another useful tool, http://www.itreetools.org/

    • Thanks for the comment, but I’m afraid prof. Jacobson is way off claiming that wind footprint is limited to the point at which the windmill touches the ground. Unless he plans to install and service them by helicopter, he will need access roads; and at some point, one needs to build power lines as well. And one also needs to clear some area around the turbine for maintenance and safety purposes. For practical terms, these areas are just as off limits to nature as is space claimed by a nuclear etc. plant.

      Furthermore, those roads can have another effect besides just taking up space: they cut biomes to smaller pieces, which, in some cases, may have unfortunate effects to the viability of said biome.

      Of course, how bad the actual impact will be will greatly depend on various variables, the most important being whether the construction is proposed on virgin land or on areas already claimed for human use. For us here in Finland, a lot of the proposed development will take place in forests; granted, most of those forests are extensively managed for forestry purposes, but still.

      The graphic is the layout of Finnish Oosinselkä wind power park (33 x 3 MW turbines) copied 90 times, rotated for artistic effect and scaled to same scale as Olkiluoto 1-3 nuclear power plant. The layout comes from official environmental assessment report prepared by the Oosinselkä developer, and includes only those access roads that have no other function than to connect turbine sites to main roads. The long “stem” connecting each cluster of 33 turbines is the main power line leading from the substation – from there to turbines the power line will be underground. (Of course, digging the line will also have some impact.)

  10. I wanted too thawnk you for this fantastic read!!
    I definitely enjoyed every bit of it. I have you book marked to check
    out new things you post…

  11. Bessie says:

    Une fois de plus un post véritablement séduisant

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