Renewables Siting

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Where we build renewables affects emissions

A 3D scene shows the word "Good" in giant letters over a scene of wind turbines and a fossil-fueled power plant, with a new wind farm near the existing wind turbines.
Avoided emissions: 0.3 tonnes CO2/MWh
A 3D scene shows the word "Good" in giant letters over a scene of wind turbines and a fossil-fueled power plant, with a new wind farm near the power plant, whose emissions are displaced by the new wind energy.
Avoided emissions: 0.7 tonnes, 2.3x better

What is it?

Renewable energy reduces emissions by displacing fossil-fueled electricity generation. But some renewable energy projects displace more emissions than others. For example, new solar capacity in California partly just displaces pre-existing solar, wasting potential impact. By contrast, building new wind farms in places like Indiana or Mississippi is far more impactful.

More-informed siting of new renewable energy projects can achieve much greater avoided emissions. Procuring wind and solar energy in part based on these criteria is a strategy we call emissionality.

Building clean energy on dirtier power grids displaces more fossil-fueled generation per MW, multiplying the avoided emissions from each dollar invested.

A 3D U.S. map shows existing solar panels in California and wind turbines in Texas, with new wind and solar in the upper Midwest in close proximity to coal-fired power plants.

Why it matters

The impact potential of just changing where we build new renewable energy is enormous — even when carefully co-optimizing for cost and other considerations. Individual projects can triple their impact. If every renewable energy project worldwide did so, it could save 5.3 billion tons of CO2 every year.

How it works

The current generation mix of the world’s electricity grids often includes polluting, fossil-fueled power plants that run on coal or natural gas. Many countries plan to build new gas-fired capacity to replace aging coal-fired generation, but that just locks in decades more of associated pollution.

Building new renewable energy projects such as wind farms and large-scale solar PV is good, but sometimes doesn’t have as much beneficial impact as intended. That’s because building more clean energy in places where there's already a lot of that kind of renewable generation just competes with other clean energy.

A better approach is to build new clean energy on dirtier grids, where wind and solar displace greater amounts of fossil-fueled power generation. Emissionality is the strategy of identifying the best locations for new renewable energy and choosing projects that maximize beneficial climate impact as measured by their avoided emissions.
A data visualization shows the avoided emissions of renewable energy projects siting in three different locations, each with very different emissions benefits.
Avoided Emissions Benefits Can Vary Greatly by Location: New wind and solar projects' impact depends heavily on the local grid mix and marginal generators in the region where the projects would get built. Renewables built in fossil-heavy grid regions displace more emissions than renewables added to the grid where there are already larger amounts of that same type of clean generation.

Partners who've done it

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The Nature Conservancy logo

Impact stories

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Want a hand exploring how to multiply the impact of your renewable energy siting or procurement? We’ll help you out! To get the conversation started, just reach out.