Climate change and biodiversity loss are the two major existential crises of our time. Across the globe, The Nature Conservancy is working to meet both challenges by accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy while expanding our efforts to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends.
As we simultaneously act on climate change and conserve biodiversity, we must make sure these two priorities are not at odds with one another. Building clean energy infrastructure at the pace and scale needed to meet our climate goals is going to require a lot of land, and we need to plan carefully to avoid harm to conservation and community values. Fortunately, TNC’s Power of Place—West analysis demonstrates that we can achieve the renewable energy buildout we need and conserve plants, animals and important wildlife habitat.
We need to rapidly build out clean energy infrastructure to provide for our electricity, transportation and building sectors. TNC’s Power of Place report estimates that the U.S. needs between 3,100 and 3,500 gigawatts of energy capacity from solar and wind to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Currently, the U.S. generates around 1,100 gigawatts per year from all energy sources, about 14% of which is from wind and solar.
Expanding renewables at this scale will require a lot of space. Power of Place estimates that under status quo development practices, the deployment of wind and solar would require more than 250,000 square miles, approximately the size of Colorado and Montana together. But with strategic actions to reduce impacts on lands, we can cut that in half.
Given the significant potential land footprint of the clean energy buildout over coming decades, where and how clean energy infrastructure is deployed will be hugely important. With careful planning and robust community engagement, we can build the infrastructure needed to power our future while keeping sensitive natural and working lands intact.
How Colorado Is Leading the Way
Colorado continues to deepen its leadership by proving the practicality and benefits of a clean energy economy. Drenched in sunlight for much of the year, with abundant wide-open spaces and strong representation on conservation and environmental justice, our state is up for the challenge. The State of Colorado has a bold climate action plan, one of the most ambitious in the nation. The state released a roadmap for reaching its climate goals by 2025, 2030, and 2050.
The transition is well underway in Colorado’s eastern plains, where much of the renewable energy in the state is located. The largest solar facilities and first utility-scale battery storage components in Colorado are expected to be added there by 2024. The region benefited from an estimated $9.4 billion in construction and investment activity in the renewable sector between 2000 and 2023. This included $2.7 billion in direct economic benefit from local spending on equipment, materials, design and planning, and local workers. Many communities are seeing solar and wind power as a new cash crop.
At the same time, the state is making strides by developing Colorado's Outdoor Strategy, led by Great Outdoors Colorado and state agencies. The strategy will set out a vision for conservation, climate resilience, and sustainable recreation. One priority will be protecting resilient and connected landscapes, which will be central to how clean energy is developed in the state
Smart Planning from the Start
New federal investments have the potential to double the nation’s renewable energy installations by 2030. As the clean energy transition gains speed, supercharged by federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, we need smart planning at all levels of governance. We must ensure that we equitably meet our climate goals while protecting biodiversity and meeting community needs. According to TNC’s Power of Place—West analysis, we can achieve both climate and conservation goals.
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This is particularly true in the Midwest and West, which have a high potential to become a “renewable energy belt” featuring solar and wind power, due to their geography and land-use patterns. It is estimated that up to 75% of the nation’s new large renewable energy projects will likely be constructed in this region. New energy investments will bolster state and local economies, creating jobs and producing abundant clean energy. It is important that they also be deployed in ways that avoid or minimize impacts on critical wildlife habitat and working lands.
Site It Right
To create a clean energy future that advances climate goals, conserves nature and benefits communities, TNC is taking action. Our focus is driving renewable energy deployment to previously developed or low-impact areas. Sensitive areas and working lands include areas with high conservation value, prime farmland and other land protected from development. In contrast, sites that are brownfields, former mine lands or otherwise unsuitable for farming or housing can be ideal for clean energy infrastructure.
In Colorado, we are working with key partners and stakeholders to develop state guidelines, frameworks and policies that will prioritize and accelerate renewable energy deployment that aligns with conservation and community goals. This can be better for people and nature and can set the stage for an efficient, low-conflict buildout. Siting on land that has conservation or cultural value or that is needed for other purposes can create community conflicts that often delay or prevent a project from being built.
TNC science shows that Colorado has more than enough land to support low-impact renewable energy installations. TNC is working with partners and state agencies to develop a comprehensive plan for renewable energy production and a toolbox of technologies that will support the transition. These technologies might include agrivoltaics (co-locating solar installations with agricultural operations), reconductoring (stringing new power lines on existing towers) and other approaches.
Innovation through Agrivoltaics
Clean Energy Benefits the Community
Renewable energy represents one of the fastest-growing job sectors in the U.S. From 2020 to 2021, energy jobs across the nation grew 4%, outpacing overall job employment growth, which climbed 2.8% during that same period. Investments in clean energy will help create thousands of new job opportunities every year in Colorado, with benefits that are expected to ripple throughout the supply chain and broadly across the economy.
Plus, Colorado voters support the shift to clean energy. The bipartisan 2023 State of the Rockies poll found that 69% of Colorado voters prioritize clean, renewable energy over fossil fuels.
The goals we have set are achievable. Colorado has an incredible opportunity to accelerate our deployment of renewable energy in a way that protects communities and conservation values and to be a national leader in solutions for climate and conservation. By working together with communities, industry and environmental groups, we can build a better future for people and nature in a way that will be felt for generations.