Part of a land professional’s duties is to help energy companies find suitable land for their uses. However, this can come with a ton of pushback, as landowners and residents object to different sources of energy for various reasons. In reality, no energy source is perfect and even those that seem the most virtuous are fraught with unexpected challenges.
In this blog post, we’ll break down the pros and cons of each in an effort to help land pros address these objections head-on and help clients come to a strategic compromise.
The Difference Between Energy Sources
While it is true that some energy sources are “cleaner” than others, they all have some sort of impact on the environment. In fact, landowners may be surprised to learn that, during the manufacturing of parts, some green technologies rely on “equally finite” natural resources like metals and minerals. Put simply, to say that any one source is “the best” is not only untrue but potentially harmful.
Below are the most common renewable and non-renewable energy sources and the pros and cons of each.
One objection to wind turbines is that landowners and/or residents living nearby may worry about having to live with the sound and flickering shadows that stem from the moving blades.
In actuality, one land pro says, “There are regulations and ordinances on how much time in a day or a year [those disturbances] can impact a home. Some states have a zero-hour ordinance.” And, as for the sound? “It’s really not much louder than, say, a microwave.”
Another hot button issue that has come up in recent years is the fact that turbine blades are being buried in massive plots of land. Fortunately, we’re already seeing companies looking to address this by coming out with recyclable blades.
Due to the sheer size of space required to operate as well as the use of rare and expensive materials (like copper and cadmium), solar power involves a high upfront investment for a solution that, quite frankly, can be pretty intermittent. Additionally, solar panel production has raised both ethical and environmental questions in recent years. Furthermore, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts large amounts of annual waste in the next decade, coming from decommissioned solar panels.
However, the pros of this energy source cannot be ignored. Along with being non-pollutant to air and water overall, solar energy is abundant, low maintenance, widely available, and completely silent.
Much like solar energy, geothermal energy (which is sourced from the heat inside the earth) is heavy in upfront costs. It’s also only sustainable if reservoirs are appropriately managed (so, not exactly low maintenance).
On the plus side, geothermal energy produces smaller amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur components than fossil fuels, is great for heating and cooling, leaves a small footprint, and is both reliable and predictable.
Thanks to advances in technology, energy resource discoveries, energy prices, social pressures, and other factors, the types of energy used throughout the history of the United States have changed over time. By the early 1900s oil and natural gas had become abundantly available. They were found to be more cost-effective than coal (which had become the norm) and easier to transport, store, and handle in many applications.
While many landowners today may balk at how costly it is to use this energy source, some land pros believe that fossil fuels can actually be a cleaner solution in the long run.
“It’s a pretty large investment up front,” says one. “But once fully operational, the carbon footprint is reduced and paid off after a certain number of years.” Although some fossil fuels (like coal) continue to create carbon emissions throughout their lifetime, others (natural gas), if burned under perfect combustion circumstances, produce minimal to no harmful compounds.
Most of the petroleum products consumed in the United States are made from crude oil, but petroleum liquids can also be made from natural gas and coal.
Of course, most landowners are familiar with the pitfalls of oil as an energy source. Namely, the disruption to wildlife and vegetation, air and water pollutants, and the methane produced during fracking.
However, fossil fuels have become the most reliable and technologically advanced source of energy, which, from an investment standpoint remains compelling. In fact, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that the United States consumed an average of about 18.19 million barrels of petroleum per day or a total of about 6.66 billion barrels of petroleum in 2020.
Natural gas is found deep inside the earth and drilled in the same way as oil. It’s cheaper and cleaner than gasoline and produces fewer greenhouse emissions than its counterparts. It burns completely and can be safely stored.
Natural gas tops the list of the most used energy sources because it is highly combustible and burns more cleanly than other forms of energy. Natural gas can be used in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquified petroleum gas (LPG).
However, this energy source is difficult to use/extract, emits greenhouse gas emissions, and is dangerously combustible. Detractors are also quick to point out that the infrastructure needed to use natural gas is very expensive as long pipes, specialized tanks, and separate plumbing systems need to be used. Long-distance transmission, transportation, and fixing leaky pipes also require an extra cost.
Still, natural gas tops other fossil fuels when it comes to clean-burning as it releases 45% less carbon dioxide than coal and 30% less than oil. While most definitely a finite source, there does exist an abundant supply (the US produces most of the natural gas it uses).
Finally, natural gas is a lot safer and easier to store compared to other fossil fuels. Because of that, it is one of the most efficient sources of energy for the generation of electricity and heating.
Coal often gets a bad rap for its environmental impact. Its potential to pollute the air, soil, and water pollutants, as well as the byproducts of mining (carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, toxic heavy metals, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury), are also huge negatives.
But the fact that it’s abundant and inexpensive can’t be ignored and new “clean coal” technology has been created in an effort to remove harmful material from coal before it even reaches the environment.
If you find yourself in the position to have to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of an energy source with a landowner, the most helpful approach is to view the dialogue not as a debate, but as a frank and honest discussion. Put simply, don’t get so tied up in your “talking points” that you neglect to directly address any and all objections. By keeping an open mind and a respectful demeanor, you’re more likely to help them come to a sound and strategic decision.
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