Understanding the life cycle surface land requirements of natural gas-fired electricity


The surface land use of fossil fuel acquisition and utilization has not been well characterized, inhibiting consistent comparisons of different electricity generation technologies. Here we present a method for robust estimation of the life cycle land use of electricity generated from natural gas through a case study that includes inventories of infrastructure, satellite imagery and well-level production. Approximately 500 sites in the Barnett Shale of Texas were sampled across five life cycle stages (production, gathering, processing, transmission and power generation). Total land use (0.62 m2 MWh−1, 95% confidence intervals ±0.01 m2 MWh−1) was dominated by midstream infrastructure, particularly pipelines (74%). Our results were sensitive to power plant heat rate (85–190% of the base case), facility lifetime (89–169%), number of wells per site (16–100%), well lifetime (92–154%) and pipeline right of way (58–142%). When replicated for other gas-producing regions and different fuels, our approach offers a route to enable empirically grounded comparisons of the land footprint of energy choices.

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Fig. 1: Seven-county study area in the Barnett Shale play of Texas.
Fig. 2: Distribution of surface land area.
Fig. 3: Life cycle and fuel-cycle distribution of samples of natural gas infrastructure elements.
Fig. 4: Sensitivity to changes in selected inputs for Barnett Shale life cycle land-use intensity.


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This work was supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy under Contract No. DE-AC36-08GO28308 with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Co-funding was provided by the Electric Power Research Institute. V. Li and A. Kasumu provided research support for the literature review and A. Miara provided support for power-plant data collection. D. Hettinger provided guidance for our GIS analysis. We would like to thank our independent, expert review panel for their thoughtful suggestions and guidance: S. Baldwin, D. Arent, G. Jersey, B. Stelfox, A. Trainor, J. P. Nicot, S. Boschetto, T. Skone, C. Freitas, S. Rose, M. Nibbelink and D. Lyon. We are grateful for our co-author Danielle’s guidance, who passed away while we were completing this manuscript.

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S.M.J. and G.A.H. designed the research. S.M.J., G.A.H., J.M., D.B.H., V.U., B.B. and E.M. compiled the data for the analysis and reviewed literature. S.M.J., J.M., D.B.H., V.U., B.B. and E.M. analysed data. S.M.J., G.A.H., J.M. and D.M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Sarah M. Jordaan.

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Supplementary Figures 1–6, Supplementary Tables 1–7, Supplementary Notes 1–9 and Supplementary References

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Data on each site sampled.

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Jordaan, S.M., Heath, G.A., Macknick, J. et al. Understanding the life cycle surface land requirements of natural gas-fired electricity. Nat Energy 2, 804–812 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-017-0004-0

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