Land use of energy supply for carbon neutral mobility: a well-to-wheel analysis
European Transport Research Review volume 15, Article number: 26 (2023)
The transition to carbon neutral mobility will require a lot of carbon neutral energy, but a lot of space as well. In many countries, it will be a challenge to find this space or to import enough energy. Land use indicators related to sustainable mobility usually focus on space for transport infrastructure and parking, i.e. direct land use, and do not include energy supply. Existing literature on the emerging research field of ‘energy landscapes’ has not covered the transport sector.
The aim of this paper is to estimate the order of magnitude of land or sea area required for carbon neutral mobility.
In a well-to-wheel analysis, we investigate the land use for the production, transport, storage, distribution, and charging/refuelling of carbon neutral energy carriers for various modes of transport. The analysis focuses on the Netherlands, but part of the results are expected to be broadly applicable to other countries as well.
The results show that electricity from wind or solar energy supplied to electric vehicles is the most space efficient. Use of hydrogen and synthetic fuels in vehicles takes 2–5 times more land, while use of biofuels from energy crops takes 100 times more land compared to the electricity route. We also conclude that the indirect land use for energy supply for carbon neutral road transport in the Netherlands is in the same order of magnitude as the current direct land use of road mobility.
Making mobility systems carbon neutral is a major challenge. It fits in with the European Green Deal’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing transport CO2 emissions by 90% 1. Such a large CO2 reduction requires a comprehensive transition with major investments, policy choices and behavioural changes. This transition also has substantial spatial consequences. It is not only about how we will produce the necessary carbon neutral energy for mobility, but also where we will do this: will there be a few large production locations or many small ones? And how do we organise transport, storage and distribution to the end-users in the mobility sector? This paper aims to shed light on the spatial implications of the transition to carbon neutral mobility, an issue which so far has received limited attention in academic literature. The objective is to assess and compare the land use of several energy chains for carbon neutral energy for mobility and to evaluate the options that the Netherlands has to achieve carbon neutral mobility. In addition, we discuss to what extent the results may be applicable to other countries. The main research question of our research is:
What are the net and gross land use of electricity, hydrogen, synthetic fuels and biofuels, when used for carbon neutral mobility in the Netherlands?
In this paper we analyse 4 energy carriers for mobility (electricity, hydrogen, synthetic fuels and biofuels) in terms of the space used in their respective ‘energy chains’ in 2030. This year was chosen as assumptions for technology development after that are too uncertain. An energy chain consists of the following steps:
Production of the energy carrier from raw materials and other inputs.
Transport, storage and distribution of the energy carrier. The difference between transport and distribution is that transport (for electricity: transmission) refers to long distances and distribution to the supply to the end-user.
Bringing the energy carrier in the vehicle by refuelling or charging.
Use in the vehicle: conversion of the energy carrier into vehicle propulsion.
The 4 selected energy carriers can be produced from carbon-neutral sources 2. A complete chain is also called “well-to-wheel” (WTW). The first 3 steps are well-to-tank (WTT) and the last step is tank-to-wheel (TTW). For the TTW step we analyse 5 different modalities, that together make up over 90% of the mobility emissions in the Netherlands, including those from bunker fuels 3 (with the latter largely used by international shipping and aviation). These are: light duty vehicles, heavy duty vehicles, inland shipping, maritime shipping and (intercontinental) aviation. Not all vehicle-energy carrier combination are investigated, as some have a technological readiness level (TRL) that is too low to be implemented on a large scale by 2050 or involve practical barriers. The land use is determined through literature research and data from previous primary research. Our research is embedded in literature on ‘energy landscapes’, which concerns the study of the correlation between the physical characteristics of energy commodities (including their spatial footprints) and the societal implications of the energy commodities 4, 5. Our research does not consist of a life cycle analysis (LCA), as we do not take the production of the required installations or facilities into account (e.g. the land required to provide the energy or steel to build wind turbines). The research is validated through expert interviews and expert reviews.
This paper contributes to filling two knowledge gaps. First, the results provide a rough picture of the surface of land or sea taken up by the energy chains in relation to each other, which can be important when considering policy—alongside other aspects such as costs, environmental impact, security of supply, safety and so on. In recent literature, the link between land use and climate policy is explored for the energy or electricity sector 6,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 (see for an overview Guillot et al. 10). This paper therefore specifically provides insights into the spatial aspects of energy in the mobility sector.
Second, this paper adds to literature on indicators for land use of mobility. Several articles and reports 11,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14 review and develop sets of indicators for sustainable mobility. In such indicator sets, land surface required (phrased for example as “land use”, “land consumption”, “land take”, “space consumption”, and “space usage”) for transport road infrastructure is considered, as is space used for parking of vehicles, fuel stations, logistics centres, ports and airports. One example of a land use indicator is “per capita land devoted to transport facilities” 11. Land use for the energy supply has, to our knowledge, not yet been considered in land use indicators for mobility.
2.1 Overview of energy chains
An energy chain starts, according to our definition, with energy production and ends with using the energy carrier in a vehicle, i.e. a well-to-wheel approach. We consider 5 modes of transport, each with its own reference vehicle, see Table 1. The reference vehicles are selected in such a way that they are typical for the transport modes and are responsible for a significant amount of CO2 emissions of each mode. For instance, for aviation we have selected a large aircraft suitable for international flights which can accommodate more than 300 passengers. The focus on international flights is based on the fact that flights longer than 4000 kms emit more than half of the CO2 emissions of the flights to and from EU airports 15.
The 4 energy carriers are not equally suitable for all reference vehicles. Table 2 gives an overview of the combinations of energy carriers and vehicles considered in this study. As selection criteria we have applied 1) a technological readiness level (TRL) greater than 6 for the vehicle-energy carrier combination, i.e. the technology has been demonstrated 17 and 2) practical applicability.
Based on the second criterion, the synthetic fuel (synfuel) ammonia, which is highly toxic, has only been considered for inland and maritime navigation and not for road transport 18. In intercontinental aviation, we only see drop-in fuels as an option: fuels that are chemically similar to kerosene, which means that no modifications to the aircraft and to the fuel infrastructure are necessary. Other options (battery-electric and hydrogen) have been excluded for intercontinental aviation because of their low TRL and their unpractical weight and volume characteristics.
Within each energy chain, multiple technologies can be used to produce and transport the energy carriers. Table 3 gives an overview of the options per energy chain and subtypes considered in this study.
2.2 Definition and scope of land use
In this paper, we consider land use from a quantitative point of view. We first analyse the use of space per unit of energy produced, transported and finally distributed to a vehicle or vessel. This is a unit of energy at the point of charging or refuelling. We subsequently translate this, via energy consumption per vehicle, into usage of space for 2 different scopes:
A passenger car
An inland vessel
Total for distance travelled in Dutch road transport
Total for aviation and maritime transport on the basis of what these modes bunker within the Netherlands
Land use per vehicle [m2] = land use per unit of energy at the point of charging/refuelling [m2/GJ] x energy charged or tanked by the vehicle [GJ].
For the per vehicle approach, we selected the 2 modes that have the highest number of feasible energy carriers from Table 2. This will be sufficient to show the relative land use results, as the relative values are rather similar across all modes (see Chapter 3). For the energy consumption of a vehicle, we take its annual consumption; the land use is the space required to produce this amount of energy in a year.
We estimate the use of space in 2 ways, in accordance with for example  and . The net land use is the above-ground land or sea area that is used primarily (i.e. as the main purpose) for energy production, for example the area of land occupied by a wind turbine, without taking into account the fact that wind turbines must be placed hundreds of metres away from each other to avoid interference with each other. The gross land use (sometimes called “total land use”) indicates the total area required to produce a certain amount of energy. The space between the turbines, or air capture units, for example, also counts as land use for energy production, even though it is or can be used for other purposes. For instance, cattle can graze between the wind turbines. However, this space between turbines must be present in order to be able to place the turbines at a distance from each other and is therefore indispensable. This gross measure is useful to determine what the spatial possibilities and limitations are to generate a certain quantity of energy.
Combinations of energy production can also take place on the same surface, for example biomass cultivation between the turbines of a wind farm 9, but this will not be considered here.
Table 4 shows what is included and excluded in the land use for the production of electricity and biomass (as a raw material for biofuels). A general assumption here is that for the net land area, the primary purpose of the land area is leading, and that when energy production is a secondary purpose of the land area used, the net usage is zero. The latter also applies to solar energy on roofs and biomass from agricultural residues.
Storage of CO2 and transport of natural gas take place underground and as such do not require significant amounts of land. The required biomethane can be extracted from waste (sewage sludge) or residual flows from agriculture or livestock and therefore we allocate no land area for that either.
In addition to hydrogen, the production of synfuels requires CO2. This CO2 can be either captured from point sources via carbon capture (CC) or directly from the air. With carbon capture it is questionable if it fits in a CO2 neutral society in the longer term 22. Nevertheless, if there are still point sources (which is very likely in 2030) it is more cost-effective to capture the CO2 there than from the air. Carbon capture installations are not very space intensive but have to be placed next to existing industrial facilities, where space may be scarce 23. Direct air capture (DAC) installations require more space than CC units. In addition, there is some uncertainty about the land use for DAC in the literature 24, 25.
The reference year is 2030 for all technologies in the energy chains. In the analysis for the total use of space, this has been combined with the current mobility demand (in pre-COVID year 2019). Tables 5, 6, 7 and 8 show the data sources used for the first step in the energy chain, the production of the energy carriers, broken down into land use per unit of energy carrier production and the inputs required to produce hydrogen and 3 subtypes of synfuels.
For hydrogen production with electrolysis, it is assumed that the electrolyser uses a mix of 76% electricity from wind turbines and 24% electricity from solar panels in the Netherlands (based on ), where electricity from solar panels can be split into 9% on roofs and 15% solar farms on land, water or infrastructure 32.
For the land use of the electricity network of the Netherlands, we have taken the current land take of the high-voltage grid (150 km2) and transformer substations (15 km2), plus the expansion that is expected to be needed until 2050: 40–70 km2 for the high-voltage grid and 3 km2 for transformer substations, as well as 20–50 km2 for the required flexibility (hydrogen storage, stationary batteries and gas-fired power stations) 49. Based on the average electricity demand in 2050 in four scenarios for carbon-neutral energy 50, the land use amounts to 1 m2 per MWh per year.
For the production of hydrogen from electrolysis, we do not allocate land use to transport and distribution of electricity, under the assumption that the electrolyser can be connected relatively close to the electricity production sites (wind turbines and solar panels). Further land requirements for hydrogen are partially underground (pipelines, for example), which we do not count as land use, in storage tanks similar to those currently used for fossil fuels and in electrolysers. The land use of electrolysers and storage tanks is small 44 compared to the land use associated with the electricity supplied to the electrolysers.
Charging stations are needed for electric vehicles. These are mainly located on private property and partly in the (semi-)public space: on the street, at parking lots and at fast-charging stations or in business parks. The surface area required for these charging stations is small compared to the production and transport of electricity 16. The same applies to filling stations for hydrogen, biofuels and synfuels; their land take is comparable to that of existing filling stations for fossil fuels.
Table 9 shows the energy efficiency of the various energy chains, split into well-to-tank (from production to loading/fuelling) and tank-to-wheel (use in vehicle) and well-to-wheel (entire chain). These are used to calculate energy consumption, and thus land use per vehicle.
Data on total energy consumption and distance travelled by the various transport modes in 2019 are taken from Statistics Netherlands 67, and data on specific energy consumption was analysed by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research 16.
4.1 Land use per vehicle or vessel
Due to the electricity demand in the different steps of the hydrogen chain and further energy losses in the production of synfuels from hydrogen (see Tables 6 And 8), the use of hydrogen from electrolysis and synfuels costs over 2 to 5 times more electricity than the use of pure electricity in vehicles. These differences are also reflected in the net land use to supply 1 passenger car with carbon neutral energy (see Fig. 1). For a mix of 76% electricity from wind turbines and 24% electricity from solar panels, this is about 12 m2 per car, based on annual distance travelled of 13,000 km. For hydrogen from electrolysis and FT-liquids it is 25–45 m2 per vehicle, the variant in which hydrogen is transported in the form of ammonia (which is then converted back into hydrogen) at the upper limit of this range due to the lower efficiency of this energy chain. The space consumption of biomass from energy crops is much higher than that of the other options, around 2500 m2.
For a truck, the space required is 600 m2 for electricity and 1300–2300 m2 for hydrogen and synfuels. For a tractor-trailer to run completely on solar energy, a PV panel area of about 200 m2 is required.
An inland vessel requires about 0.01 km2 for electricity and 0.02–0.04 km2 for hydrogen and the various synfuels (FT-liquids, methanol and ammonia) (Fig. 2).
Hydrogen from SMR-CCS takes up less space than hydrogen from electrolysis and therefore fits better in the Netherlands. The SMR-CCS installation takes up little above-ground space as does the natural gas required for it (we assume gas pipeline lie underground). For the required 10% biomethane to make the SMR-CCS process carbon neutral, we assume residual flows, as mentioned earlier, which does not require any additional space. Thus, the only considered use of space comes from the electricity required for the production and above-ground transport and distribution of the hydrogen.
4.2 Total land use
As explained in Sect. 2.2 we also explore, based on assumptions in Chapter 3, the total land use for road-based mobility and bunker fuels. If all road mobility in the Netherlands had been electric in 2019, it is estimated that electricity demand at the charging points would have been 40 TWh, with a net land take of about 250 km2. For comparison, this corresponds to about 1/5 of the existing surface for road infrastructure and (outdoor) parking.
A wind farm of the size of 4% of the land surface of the Netherlands is needed to power all road vehicles in the Netherlands. This is the gross land take, including the space between the wind turbines.
Wind farms with a surface area of almost 40% of the Dutch land surface, or 1/4 of the Dutch Continental shelf (NCP), are needed to produce synfuels for the aircraft and sea-going vessels currently bunkering in the Netherlands. Again, this is the gross surface area. Realising such an area of wind farms would be a major challenge, because other sectors also need electricity and the potential space for wind farms at sea is limited to approximately 1/3 of the NCP 6.
If all the fuel currently bunkered in the Netherlands by air and sea transport were biofuel from energy crops (non-residues), this would require a land area approximately twice that of the Dutch land surface. In the case of biomass from residues, there is no additional land take, so the net land take is zero, even if the primary crop does require space.
4.3 Space comparison of the chain steps
Production of energy carriers (including the inputs it requires) is the step that uses by far the most space in all four chains. This does not alter the fact that the other chain steps also need space and this can be a major challenge, especially in urban environments.
The transport, storage and distribution step takes up considerable space in the electricity chain, more than in the other chains. In fact, this step accounts for all the space consumed by the 'electricity-solar-on-roof' option, because we do not allocate any net land take to the solar panels themselves (and assume the electricity is taken from the grid and no application of vehicle-to-grid). The main issue is the land use of high-voltage cables and transformer substations for electricity transmission and distribution 49. Transformer stations are usually located in or on the outskirts of urban areas. In addition, flexibility in the electricity system is needed to accommodate fluctuations in solar and wind energy. The installations needed for this—stationary batteries, hydrogen storage—also take up space 49.
In the case of the hydrogen, synfuels and biofuel chains, we have considered the space requirements in the transport, storage and distribution step to be negligible compared to the production step (and the inputs for production).
The charging and refuelling infrastructure also requires space, often in places where space is scarce. In the Netherlands an estimated 1.4 million public and semi-public charge points are needed to accommodate the current fleet of 9 million electric cars 68, many of which will be sited at pavements or parking lots. In addition, fast chargers will be located along motorways or arterial roads. In the case of hydrogen, the filling stations will have to be well fitted into the local area for safety reasons (hydrogen is used under high pressure, is highly flammable and has an ignition energy 10 times lower than that of natural gas 69). For the synfuels and biofuels that are chemically equivalent to their fossil counterparts, the spatial integration of charging/refuelling infrastructure is easier than for electricity and hydrogen.
For the preceding analysis we make a few comments on the methodology, uncertainties, interpretation of the results, the relevance for other countries and finally, some implications for policy.
Net land use is the surface area that cannot be used, or only used to a limited extent, for other purposes. For solar energy this may be a somewhat strict approach: we also count the space under and between solar panels in the landscape or on infrastructure as space for energy production, while this space could also be used for other purposes, such as livestock grazing 70.
For biofuels from energy crops we count all the space of the energy crops, although this space may also contribute to biodiversity or be suitable for recreation. In the case of biofuels from residues, on the other hand, we do not allocate land use to these residues, residues and waste streams from agriculture and forestry, but allocate 100% of the land use to the primary product, such as maize or sugar cane. The EU Renewable Energy Directive 71 uses a similar approach to determine greenhouse gas emissions. However, the residue does have an economic value. This is why land use can also be allocated on the basis of economic value 72. The results with respect to land use will then be substantially different, but we have not found any literature that quantitatively applies this approach.
The results are shown without uncertainty margins, but there are of course uncertainties. These uncertainties do not affect the ratio of land use between the various chains much—as this is determined mainly by the energy efficiency values, which are relatively certain and correspond well with existing research 51, 52—but do affect the absolute values. The uncertainty is mainly caused by the dispersion in the literature on the use of space for energy production (see Table 5, 6 and 7). The literature on solar and wind energy is mainly from the Netherlands, because the yield per unit of space differs between countries, but we have also used some international sources. For wind energy and biomass production, for example, we found a factor of 8 between the lowest and highest values for net land take. For wind, the spread in gross land use is less: a factor of 2.5. We did not further investigate the reasons for this difference in spread for wind energy, but an explanation may be that definitions of gross land use are better defined than for net land use 8. The result that large-scale demand for wind-based electricity in ambitious climate mitigation scenarios will need a large land or sea area corresponds with recent literature 20.
For electricity transmission and distribution, we examined the electricity grid as a whole, without distinguishing between user sectors, such as electric mobility versus households or industry. This is a simplification of reality as the user profile of mobility is different from other sectors, which also means that the adjustments needed in the electricity grid are different, especially if, for example, all road mobility becomes electric.
The quantitative analysis we have used in this paper has the advantage of providing an insightful measure into the land use of energy for mobility. The limitation is that no attention is given to the qualitative side. As noted in literature on energy landscapes 4,1,2,3,4,5,6, Qualitative aspects effects on the landscape can be very important, for example from the point of view of social acceptance and combining it with other functions and social goals, such as nature and liveability.
We can illustrate this with wind energy. Quantitatively, we can get a good insight into the net and gross land take, in the measure m2 or km2, as we have shown above. In qualitative terms, however, the presence of the turbines is a factor in limiting users of the space between them. In addition, the wind turbines have a subjective (scenic) impact, for example in the form of sight obstruction. The quality of space is thus affected by the presence of the wind turbines.
The qualitative aspects of land use are also influenced by the exact location and its relationship to other land users. In areas with a high population density or high nature value, different quality requirements will generally apply to land use than to areas with low population density or low nature value.
5.4 Applicability of the results to countries other than the Netherlands
Although we have done this analysis only for the Netherlands, it gives an idea about the space needed for carbon neutral mobility and the differences in space use between energy carriers. The results are not intended to provide exact numbers, but rather reasonable estimates that can be used to compare different energy carriers. Therefore, we believe the results are also broadly applicable to other countries, while noting the following. Net land use per vehicle may be lower if wind and solar power have a higher yield per m2 than in the Dutch situation. For example, in Northern African countries electricity production per m2 solar panel is about double of that in the Netherlands 73. On the other hand, if the share of non-roof solar power compared to wind power is higher than assumed for the Netherlands, the land use for the electricity mix will be higher. Globally, the main carbon neutral sources of electricity are projected to be wind and solar in 2050, for example approximately 70% in the IEA Net Zero Scenario 18, however this share may be lower or higher depending on each countries’ natural conditions.
For total gross land use, expressed in percentage land use for energy supply for mobility, the results are rather specific to the Dutch situation. For example, less densely populated countries such as Australia, Sweden or the United States may have substantially lower energy consumption for mobility relative to their land surface, therefore also a lower relative land use for the energy supply. For bunker fuels for maritime transport, the Netherlands is in an exceptional position, having the 3rd largest bunker fuel port in the world, and being one of the six countries that together make up 60% of the global bunker fuel market 74. Most other countries will therefore have a much smaller gross land use for carbon-neutral bunker fuels.
5.5 Policy implications
Our analysis shows that use of electricity in vehicles is the most space-efficient option. However, when choosing an energy carrier for vehicles, other aspects are also important, such as cost, flexibility, security of supply and impacts on other areas such as biodiversity and nature. In terms of flexibility, electricity has the disadvantage that its supply depends on variable sources: solar and wind energy and that it is more difficult to store than the other energy carriers. Hydrogen seems to be the second-best option, if direct electrification is not possible. What the carbon neutral energy carriers have in common is that the land take will soon exceed the available space in densely populated countries such as the Netherlands. Multifunctional land use can tackle part of this problem 9, but energy imports will probably become necessary. Strategies for this and international cooperation may be required. For other countries, on the other hand, opportunities for export arise. When considering biofuels for transport, biomass from agricultural residues has the lowest footprint, however is unlikely to be sufficient to meet demand 72. Producing biofuels from energy crops requires consideration of biodiversity and soil erosion impacts. And last but not least a strategy to reduce the energy demand of mobility, for example through lighter vehicles or a shift to less energy intensive modes, is another way of saving space.
Carbon neutral mobility can be achieved by using electricity, hydrogen synfuels or biofuels as energy carriers. The analysis shows that the use of electricity in vehicles leads to lower land use than that of hydrogen or synfuels. The land use of synfuels and hydrogen is several times (2–5) higher than that of electricity. The land use of biomass is very low if the fuel is made from residues. However, the land use of biofuels is much higher if the fuel is produced from dedicated energy crops, by 2 orders of magnitude, than the electricity route.
If in 2019 all road mobility in the Netherlands were electric based on solar and wind energy, it is estimated that this would mean a net land use of approximately 250 km2. This corresponds to about 1/5th of the existing land surface taken by road infrastructure and parking. This means that even the most efficient carbon neutral energy chain has a land use in the same order of magnitude as that of transport facilities. Therefore, when looking at the indicator of land use for transport in the context of sustainable mobility, the land use of energy could be taken into account. The gross land use is much higher: in total, electric road mobility requires wind farms the size of 4% of the Netherlands’ land surface.
If aviation and shipping were to bunker in the Netherlands in the form of synfuels, this would require wind farms 40% of the land surface of the Netherlands (gross land use). If biofuels from energy crops were to be used for this, an area approximately 0.5 to 3 times the size of the Netherlands would be required.
Besides the production of energy, the transport, storage and distribution of energy carriers also requires space. The spatial integration of these may be challenging, especially in urban environments.
In densely populated countries, space requirements may exceed available land or sea area. Strategies for multifunctional land use and energy imports may become necessary.
The choice of energy carriers for mobility must also take into account factors other than energy and space efficiency, such as cost, flexibility, security of supply, use of materials, and impacts on biodiversity and nature.
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We would like to thank Stefan Verduin and the two anonymous reviewers for their feedback on a draft version of this article, and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) for the data and comments provided.
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Bakker, S., Moorman, S., Knoope, M. et al. Land use of energy supply for carbon neutral mobility: a well-to-wheel analysis. Eur. Transp. Res. Rev. 15, 26 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12544-023-00601-5
- Land use
- Energy landscapes
- Carbon neutral energy
- Sustainable transport
- Synthetic fuels