A Challenge To Decarbonization That Can Be Overcome

Block Island, R.I.: View of wind turbines, located three miles off the bluffs of Block Island, Rhode … [+] Island on September 9, 2...


Building large energy projects is hard business. Among the greatest challenges renewable power plant developers face is the question of where to build a new facility. This process, known as “siting,” is much more complicated than finding land with strong wind speeds or solar irradiation. A tangled web of interrelated factors such as access to electric transmission, conflicts over competing land use, and environmental degradation must be navigated through multiple federal, state, and local regulatory permitting processes. It is exceedingly rare for a major project to sail through the siting process smoothly.

Renewable energy projects have repeatedly come up against roadblocks across the country. This is even true in the Northeast, a region characterized by strong clean energy aspirations. Cypress Creek Renewables’ Bear Ridge Solar Project in upstate New York was rejected by local regulators for being non-compliant with local zoning ordinances. Eversource’s Northern Pass transmission project, intended to bring clean hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England was rejected by the state of New Hampshire over concerns that the transmission line would impact tourism. Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid’s Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts, the first large-scale offshore wind facility in the United States, has faced delays due to concerns over impact on the fishing industry.

Given such challenges with siting clean power plants, proponents of decarbonizing our economy recognize streamlining is necessary to achieve a clean energy future. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden vows to “cut red-tape to promote faster and easier permitting” to achieve his goal of a carbon-free power industry by 2035. New York has already taken concrete steps to alleviate administrative burdens by creating the nation’s first Office of Renewable Energy Siting with a mandate “to improve and streamline the process for environmentally responsible and cost-effective siting of large-scale renewable energy projects across New York.”

As clean energy expands, siting complexity will increase  

Fully decarbonizing the U.S. economy is a massive task. A recent study found that to reach 90% clean energy by 2035, the United States would need to build approximately 75 gigawatts of new solar, wind and storage capacity a year for the next 15 years. According to the study’s companion memorandum, renewable growth at this scale would require approximately 5,100 square miles of land for ground-mounted solar and 58,000 square miles for wind power plants. That’s a huge amount of land: most of the State of Connecticut for solar generation and the entire State of Illinois for wind—with still a larger geographic footprint for energy storage and other enabling technologies.

Of course, there are ways to moderate such a massive need for land, as solar and wind generation can co-exist with other productive uses of land. Solar generation can be built on top of existing infrastructure. For example, rooftop solar and parking lot solar canopies can certainly offset some utility scale solar development on undisturbed land. Similarly, agricultural use, such as cattle grazing, can occur between wind turbines. To the extent the nation seeks to secure a decarbonized economy, multi-use strategies will be necessary. However, a huge amount of land will still need to be devoted to renewable generation.

That fact will likely lead to more siting challenges. “Solar and wind generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced compared to coal or natural gas-fired power plants,” a recent Brookings Institution report points out. “Most people say that they are in favor of renewable energy, in the abstract. But we are beginning to see a backlash against the land use implications of renewable energy in the United States, especially in wealthy, politically-active communities.”  While the political winds are currently tilting us towards a cleaner energy future, it seems inevitable there will be many conflicts over siting new renewable plants, even with streamlined permitting.

Calls for a national policy will need to account for regional variation

Since Iowa implemented the first renewable portfolio standard in 1983, nearly three-quarters of U.S. states have adopted mandatory or voluntary targets for a certain percentage of retail electric sales to come from eligible renewable energy sources. Beyond the targeted percentage varying by state, what is particularly noteworthy is what actually counts as a renewable resource varies too.

While wind and solar are universally viewed as renewable, agreement fades the further one wades into the weeds. For example, hydroelectric power may or may not be counted as renewable generation depending upon the state, and the combustion of industry byproducts—landfill gas, municipal solid waste, biomass, and even waste coal—may be counted as renewable. Some states have even augmented their renewable standards by developing “clean energy standards” that effectively ease the requirements on what counts towards a decarbonization target. These “standards” often include nuclear power, large scale hydroelectric generation, and even the possibility of coal or natural gas fitted with carbon capture technologies.

Of no surprise, where we see variation in what qualifies as renewable or clean often depends on the inherent variability of resource quality across the nation. Some regions, such as the desert Southwest, are blessed with strong sunshine that generates solar energy, whereas the Pacific Northwest finds itself within cloudy weather for large portions of the year. That very same weather, though, allows states like Washington and Oregon to rely heavily on hydroelectric power as a form of clean energy, whereas in Arizona and New Mexico this ability is more limited.

We are seeing significant calls to overhaul electricity production in the United States towards a more decarbonized system. However, for any new federal policy to be successful, it must go well beyond finding ways make it easier to build wind and solar generation. “There is no perfect way to produce electricity, especially on an industrial scale” according to the Brookings Institute study. So, accounting for regional variation is a must. This means an all-hands-on deck approach must be taken that allows for all relevant clean energy technologies, as well as the acceptance that the balance of clean energy infrastructure will vary by region.  Such a policy could take the form of more technologically neutral standards, or perhaps a carbon tax that seeks to have economics and not policy preference for specific technologies drive decarbonization goals.

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Newsrust: A Challenge To Decarbonization That Can Be Overcome
A Challenge To Decarbonization That Can Be Overcome
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