Switching to wind and solar energy will require a lot of land

Source: By Maxine Joselow, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, April 24, 2023

Below, we’ll cover the Environmental Protection Agency’s forthcoming greenhouse gas emissions standards for power plants. But first:

America’s energy transition hinges on decisions about land use, report says

There’s an often-overlooked aspect of America’s energy transition: It will require a lot of land.

That means decisions about land use could have a profound impact on the speed and scale of the nation’s shift to clean energy, according to an analysisshared first with The Climate 202 by the ICF Climate Center, a climate research group within global consulting firm ICF.

Large-scale wind and solar farms require at least 10 times as much land per unit as coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, including the land used to produce and transport the fossil fuels, research shows.

But only a fraction of all land is suitable for development. One site might have the wrong slope for solar panels, while another area might be home to an endangered species that development could doom.

If developers pick the wrong site, they risk undermining goals of the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate law that offers billions of dollars worth of tax credits for renewable energy projects nationwide.

“For the first 100 gigawatts of renewables that were developed in the previous decade, land was not an issue,” said Himali Parmar, vice president of energy advisory services, interconnection and transmission at ICF and lead author of the report. “But the siting issue has been hyper-magnified post-IRA.”

To maximize the benefits of the climate law, the analysis identifies four factors that developers should consider before selecting a site for a wind, solar or battery project. Below, we’ll unpack two of these factors and why they matter:

First, the analysis urges developers to consider how difficult — and costly — it will be to connect to the nation’s electricity grid.

  • When a developer wants to build a new energy project, they have to submit an application to a regional operator, which determines how the project will affect the grid.
  • If the regional operator determines the local grid is at capacity, it might ask the developer to pay for new transmission lines and other upgrades.

Most proposals wait years to connect to the grid. At the end of 2021, about 8,100 projects — the vast majority of them wind, solar and batteries — were waiting to plug in.

This little-known bottleneck — known as the interconnection queue — has slowed the build out of clean energy across the country. Less than one-fifthof solar and wind projects actually make it through the queue; many are canceled because of insurmountable upgrade costs.

But by proactively studying grid capacity and upgrade costs, developers can boost their odds of success, the analysis says. “Identifying sites with favorable development attributes — especially grid capacity — is a critical early step on the path to project completion,” the authors conclude.

Helping energy communities

The authors also emphasized that developers should consider locating their projects in “energy communities,” or areas that have lost employment and revenue from shuttered coal mines, coal plants or other fossil fuel facilities.

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, companies can claim an extra 10 percent tax credit if their projects are located in energy communities — a key demand of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

The following map from the National Energy Technology Laboratory shows energy communities across the country. Areas shaded in orange have lost jobs and economic activity during the transition away from fossil fuels, while areas shaded in blue have not.

Unsurprisingly, Manchin’s native Appalachia is home to many of these communities. So are pockets of coal-heavy Western states such as Wyoming and Montana.

The bonus credit could make projects in these areas much more financially attractive for developers, especially if the area also has lower wholesale electricity prices, Parmar said.

“Maybe the pricing is not as strong, but you’re able to find a good piece of land,” she said. “The 10 percent bonus helps your business case.”

The analysis didn’t delve into NIMBYism, or “not in my backyard” sentiments from nearby residents. But we thought it was worth mentioning in this context, since it has played a significant role in halting clean-energy projects over the last decade.

Towering wind turbines have generated some of the most fervent opposition from residents worried about obstructing scenic views and lowering property values, said Samantha Gross, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy Security and Climate Initiative and author of a paper titled “Renewables, Land Use and Local Opposition in the United States.”

But developers shouldn’t necessarily abandon a site if the surrounding community has concerns, Gross said. Instead, engaging with members of the community “early and often” can help gain their eventual acceptance, she said.

Clean-energy projects “have to go somewhere, and we’re going to have to make some trade-offs,” she said. “If we don’t build anything, we don’t get an energy transition.”

EPA plan would impose drastic cuts on power plant emissions by 2040

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon unveil a proposal to require power plants to drastically curb their greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, according to three people familiar with the plan, The Washington Post’s Timothy Puko reports.

If implemented, the EPA proposal would set limits so strict that fossil fuel-fired power plants probably would have to use technology to capture their carbon emissions or switch to other fuels to comply, according to the three people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a plan that is not yet public.

The proposal is still under review at the White House and could change before the EPA unveils it. The final details are still in flux, and a formal announcement could be more than a week away, the people said.

The power sector ranks as the nation’s second-largest contributor to climate change. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the EPA had exceeded its authority to cut carbon emissions from the sector during the Obama administration, although the justices left the door open to new regulations that take a less expansive approach.

Fallout from Willow oil project lands hard on Harvard climate expert

A Harvard scholar who sits on the board of ConocoPhillips — the company behind the controversial Willow oil drilling project in Alaska — has become the latest flash point in a debate over whether environmentalists should try to change corporations from the inside, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports.

Jody Freeman, founder and director of Harvard Law School’s environmental and energy law program, has spent the last 11 years on the oil company’s board, receiving $367,584 in compensation last year alone. Freeman says she has complied with Harvard’s ethics policies and has pushed ConocoPhillips, one of the world’s largest emitters, to do more to address climate change.

But Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard — a coalition of students, alumni and faculty urging Harvard to “become a true climate leader” — has called on Freeman to quit the board following the Biden administration’s approval of the Alaska oil megaproject.

“Professor Freeman, until now, you have justified your position as helping reform ConocoPhillips from the inside,” the group said in a letter. “The Willow Project makes clear that this isn’t working.”

It’s another busy week on Capitol Hill for climate policy. Here’s what we’re watching:

On Tuesday: The House Rules Committee will meet to set the parameters for floor debate on Republicans’ bill to raise the debt ceiling. The committee will also consider a resolution that would undo President Biden’s two-year pause on tariffs on solar equipment imported from Southeast Asia.

On Wednesday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a business meeting to consider the nominations of Joseph Goffman to lead the EPA’s air office and David Uhlmann to lead its enforcement office. Following the business meeting, the panel will hold a hearing on accelerating the permitting process for clean-energy projects.

  • The Senate Budget Committee will hold a hearing on the public health costs of climate change.
  • The Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development will meet to consider Biden’s budget request for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation for fiscal year 2024.
  • The House natural resources subcommittee on federal lands will examine Biden’s budget request for the U.S. Forest Service.
  • The House natural resources subcommittee on energy and mineral resources will discuss Biden’s budget request for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • The House energy and commerce subcommittee on environment, manufacturing and critical materials will hold a hearing titled “Exposing the Environmental, Human Rights and National Security Risks of the Biden Administration’s Rush to Green Policies.”

On Thursday: The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will meet to examine how plastic production and pollution affect disadvantaged communities.

On Friday: The House financial services subcommittee on housing and insurance will hold a hearing on the reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program.