The Clean Energy Future Is Roiling Both Friends and Foes

Source: By Jim Tankersley reported from Searsport, Maine; Brad Plumer and Ana Swanson from Washington; and Ivan Penn from Los Angeles to explore obstacles that could slow down the energy transition. Photographs by Mason Trinca. New York Times • Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2023

Resistance to wind and solar projects from environmentalists is among an array of impediments to widespread conversion to renewables.

A student at the University of Maine, Connor DuPuy, worked on a prototype wind turbine in a wave pool.

If there is anywhere in the country primed to welcome the clean energy transition, it is Penobscot Bay in Maine. Electricity prices there are high and volatile. The ocean waters are warming fast, threatening the lobster fishery. Miles offshore, winds blow strong enough to heat every home and power every car in the state.

For more than 15 years, researchers at the University of Maine have been honing scale models of floating wind turbines inspired by oil rigs. They are now confident they can mass-produce turbine blades the length of football fields and float them miles into the ocean. It is the kind of breakthrough in clean energy technology that is allowing a much faster transition to renewables than many believed possible, aided by state officials eager to pioneer a floating wind industry.

One key to harnessing that wind lies at the end of a causeway jutting into the bay, on a mostly undeveloped island where eagles fish offshore and people walk in the quiet shade. Many officials see this spot, known as Sears Island, as the ideal site to build and launch a flotilla of turbines that could significantly lessen Maine’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Standing in their way are environmental groups and local residents, all of whom are committed to a clean energy future and worried about the rapid warming of the earth. Still, they want the state to pick a different site for its so-called wind port, citing the tranquillity of Sears Island and its popularity and accessibility as a recreation destination.

On a recent summer morning one conservationist against the plan, Scott Dickerson, sat on a picnic bench and predicted environmental groups would sue to thwart development of the island, as they had many times in the past.

“And that, as you can imagine, is going to run the clock,” he said, costing the state valuable time that could be saved by looking elsewhere.

Two children on a beach with pebbles and seaweed.

Officials consider Sears Island, Maine, an ideal site to build and launch wind turbines; local groups oppose the plan.

After years of fits and starts, the transition to renewable energy like wind and solar power is finally shifting into full gear in many parts of the world, including the United States, which has been buoyed by massive new subsidies from the Biden administration. But around the country, the effort is being slowed by a host of logistical, political and economic challenges.

Breaks in supply chains have stalled big projects. Historically low unemployment makes it hard to hire workers to build or install new turbines or solar panels. Shortcomings in the power grid can block newly generated electricity from reaching customers. Federal, state and local regulations, including often byzantine permitting requirements, threaten to delay some construction for years. So do the court battles that almost inevitably follow those permitting decisions.

These problems are not unique to the United States. In Europe, orders for new turbines dropped unexpectedly last year as developers struggled with inflation and sluggish permitting. In parts of China, a growing fraction of electricity from turbines and solar panels is being wasted because the grid lacks capacity. In Australia, clean energy companies have complained about a shortage of skilled workers.

At the same time, it tends to take longer to build solar arrays, wind farms, car chargers and transmission lines in the United States than in China, India and Europe, a recent analysis by the International Energy Agency found.

Why the U.S. Electric Grid Isn’t Ready for the Energy Transition

The current system makes it hard to build the long-distance power lines needed to transport wind and solar nationwide.

But no hurdle to a clean energy transition at the speed and scale scientists say is needed to avert catastrophic warming is easier to see than the growing local backlash to large-scale wind and solar projects, like the one roiling Sears Island.

The problem boils down to this: If lawmakers want to ramp up renewables as fast and cheaply as possible, they’ll need to bulldoze or build over some places that people treasure.

From the desert suburbs outside Los Angeles to the rolling hills along the Ohio River to the Jersey Shore, residents are crying out against solar farms, wind turbines and new power lines. They are suing, passing laws and taking other steps to stop or slow projects, some of which would power the nation’s largest towns and cities with renewables.

“Decisions that are not meant to be personal — they’re being experienced on a very personal level,” said Alison Bates, an environmental studies professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who is studying ways to communicate with residents about offshore wind proposals.

Many opponents of renewable energy, she added, “are worried about the impacts to their very way of life.”

A sign posted on a telephone pole outside a church.

Roadside opposition to renewable energy projects near Baldwin City, Kan.

While Americans broadly support renewable energy, polls show, they are less enthusiastic about having it in their backyard. One survey from 2021 found that only 24 percent of Americans were willing to live within a mile of a solar farm; the number dropped to 17 percent for wind farms.

Such resistance is often rooted in anxieties about broader social and economic change in communities where families have lived for generations. But in some cases, like lawsuits trying to stop wind farm development off Massachusetts, groups with funding from fossil fuel interests have stoked fear. Those efforts are their own sort of obstacle to renewables: an attempt by incumbent energy players to protect their market share, even if the economics have turned against them.

Another barrier is determined opposition by many top Republicans, including congressional leaders and their presidential front-runner. They have consistently tried to expand fossil fuel production and block efforts to promote renewables, and they have vowed to overturn President Biden’s climate agenda if they regain full control of Congress and the White House. While some leaders in conservative states have welcomed development of renewables, others have passed laws making it easier for local communities to fight them.

A study this spring from Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law found a 35 percent increase last year in local ordinances restricting renewable energy development, as well as a nearly 40 percent rise in wind or solar projects facing “serious organized opposition.” If such restrictions became widespread, another recent study found, they could block up to 270 gigawatts of new onshore wind power over the next three decades, which is roughly twice the amount installed nationwide today.

‘A Critical Technology’

A large white building filled with water and fans.

The University of Maine’s wave pool and wind tunnel are part of an engineering center focused on green technology.

Accelerating a clean energy future takes much more than technological advancement. It requires building a new arm of the economy: an assembly line that starts with raw materials and ends with a fleet of panels to soak up the sun or towering turbines to lasso the wind, wired into homes and businesses.

Every stop on that assembly line presents risks that could delay or derail new projects.

Maine’s offshore wind push has been hastened by energy shocks. In 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent natural gas and home heating rates soaring. Because fossil fuel prices largely dictate energy costs in the Northeast, residential electricityprices for most Maine residents have nearly doubled in recent years.

Onshore wind and solar power have helped reduce electric costs, but the state cannot feasibly reach its renewables goals — and less expensive energy bills — without offshore generation. That’s particularly true because wind blows strongest offshore in the coldest months, when demand for heat is at its highest.

“We see offshore wind as a critical technology,” said Dan Burgess, the director of the Maine Governor’s Energy Office.

Environmental groups, labor unions, some business leaders and a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers locked arms this year to approve incentives and guarantees to help speed the development of Maine’s offshore wind industry, which could create thousands of skilled jobs in the state.

Habib Dagher, in a mustache and sport coat.

Renewable technology “with zero impact on the environment” is impossible, said Habib Dagher of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Those have helped propel Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, as her administration tries to install three gigawatts of offshore wind power — enough to power about 750,000 homes — in the Gulf of Maine by 2040. The turbines will be far out enough to avoid the state’s prime lobster fishing grounds and mostly disappear from view.

The climate bill that Mr. Biden signed last year provided hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks and grants to help make a wide variety of low-carbon technologies — such as solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear reactors or batteries — ultimately cheaper than fossil fuels.

A recent analysis found that it would cost less for electric utilities to build new wind and solar farms than to operate most of the existing coal-fired power plants — a stunning shift from 15 years ago, when burning coal was the cheapest way to make electricity.

But after years of rapid growth, installations of wind, solar and batteries slowed by 15 percent last year, according to the American Clean Power Association, a trade group.

“There’s a lot of capital ready to flow,” said Gregory Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, another trade group. “But to get these projects going, you need to get them permitted, you need to get them connected to the grid, you need workers, you need access to supply chains. All of that can still be quite difficult.”

‘Too Much Optimism’

In a lot sits an enormous machine with a ladder and centipede-like tracks of tires.

Mack Point near Searsport, Maine, is another proposed staging ground for offshore wind turbines.

In Maine, many of those challenges are concentrated at one choke point: where to put a new wind port, which state officials have not decided on.

Offshore turbines need a large slab of land where they can be built and launched to sea. That site must connect to highways, to truck in materials, but also sit beside deep water.

The state’s two main contenders are in Searsport, about 30 miles south of Bangor.

One site is an industrial area, Mack Point, clearly visible from Sears Island. It is the spot many locals and conservationists prefer. The company that owns it says it could be easily converted to build and ship offshore turbines.

But some officials have warned that it could be difficult for Mack Point to secure needed permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies in order to dredge the bay and build new port facilities.

“I don’t know if it can be permitted on Mack Point,” said James Gillway, the town manager of Searsport.

Across the country, clean energy projects of all types are tied up in lengthy permitting processes. For offshore wind, it can take up to 10 years to secure approval before construction can begin. Elsewhere, many nuclear power companies are seeking to develop a new generation of smaller, safer reactors, but outdated regulations could make approval difficult, experts warn. Some solar developers are wary of building on federally owned land in the West because permitting can be so onerous.

Some environmentalists say that these stringent reviews are crucial for protecting fragile ecosystems or public health — and that such regulations have been useful for blocking fossil fuel projects in the past. Yet others concerned about climate change say the balance has tipped too far toward paralysis.

Permitting has proved especially difficult for the nation’s antiquated and fragmented electric grid. The United States has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, including gusty winds in the Great Plains and scorching sun in the Southwest. But to tap those resources, which are often far from population centers, developers will need to build thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines.

Yet building long-distance power lines can be a brutal slog. Reviews and permitting alone can take a decade or longer, and any state or county in the path of the lines can throw up roadblocks. Since 2000, the United States has barely built any major transmission lines that connect different regions of the country.

The 17-year journey of a wind farm project in New Mexico helps explain why. Initially proposed in 2006, the SunZia project entailed building a vast wind farm in New Mexico along with a 550-mile power line to deliver electricity to Arizona and California. This spring, after years of legal battles and route changes, SunZia received its final federal permit. It is now expected to be completed by 2026.

“I don’t know if there’s a single major transmission project out there that’s been done in less than a decade,” Hunter Armistead, the chief executive of Pattern Energy, which is developing the project, said at a recent conference. He later added, “There’s too much optimism in how fast people think this is actually going to happen, and I think that’s dangerous.”

Projects that manage to secure permits still need materials and workers, both of which are scarce.

B.C. Broussard, the chief technology officer at Intertie, a California-based company that builds and installs microgrids for commercial energy storage, said that a shortfall of semiconductors last year slowed production for the firm and its competitors. He said the industry was now dealing with a roughly six-month wait for components like panel boards, disconnect switches and combiners. In addition, energy storage companies like his have been competing with electric vehicle makers for batteries and cells.

Men in white hard hats attend to electric machinery in a parched field.

A crew running diagnostics at Enel’s solar-power site in Riesel, Texas, which contains 1.2 million panels.

“There’s not enough to go around,” he said.

Supply chains are being further stretched by an effort to reduce America’s dependence on China, which now pumps out the vast majority of the world’s solar panels, battery minerals and wind turbines.

Hiring woes have compounded the problem. In recent years, ReVision Energy, which installs solar panels and heat pumps across the Northeast, has started training dozens of new workers in house, offering apprenticeships and helping employees get their electrician licenses.

But it still can’t find enough skilled electricians to keep up with soaring demand: The wait time for installing new rooftop solar panels has risen from around three months to around 10 in some areas, said Vaughan Woodruff, ReVision’s vice president of work force development.

Perhaps more than anything else, the question of where to place large new developments looms over the clean energy economy.

In the past, traditional coal, gas and nuclear plants could be built close to cities, taking up relatively little land. Energy infrastructure, like power plants, was often dropped into low-income areas and communities of color. People who were already marginalized disproportionately suffered from pollution, reduced home values and other costs linked to that infrastructure.

Wind and solar farms need far more space — typically thousands of acres — to produce the same amount of power. They are more likely to be located in rural or coastal areas, putting new communities face to face with energy infrastructure for the first time, and unhappily so.

In California, sunny San Bernardino County recently barred any new solar projects that don’t serve local needs from occupying more than a million acres of land. In Kansas, where wind generates nearly half the state’s power, at last 20 counties have restricted or banned new projects.

Black panels on flat fields.

Wind and solar farms need far more space to produce the same amount of power as fossil fuel plants. The Riesel site extends across 4,263 acres.

State officials in Ohio passed a law that allows county commissioners to block large-scale wind and solar projects but not fossil fuel drilling. Opponents of one solar plan in Ohio barraged state officials with complaints about falling property values and dark plots linked to China; they said anyone looking to lease their land to solar companies could no longer call themselves “farmers.”

Many of those objections are rooted in online misinformation, often promoted by longtime critics of renewable products who are sometimes linked to the fossil fuel industry. But in interviews, some opponents of the Ohio solar farm expressed a much simpler rationale: They saw only downsides and nothing in it for them.

Opposition is also rising in urban areas and liberal states, where concerns about climate change run high. In Atlantic City, N.J., groups have protested and sued to stop federal approval of as many as 98 turbines in close offshore waters. They cite hits to tourism and claim damage to whales, with no firm scientific evidence behind them — but with the encouragement of some conservative media figures like Tucker Carlson.

In New York, efforts to install public electric vehicle chargers have run into intense opposition from groups that want to radically reduce traffic and see the technology as a way to extend the hegemony of the automobile.

As a result, Manhattan has only seven fast chargers, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and five of those are open only to Teslas.

Biden aides say they are confident the benefits of the projects will win over those opposed to having them near their backyard.

“There are a lot of creative ways to site clean energy,” Ali Zaidi, the White House national climate adviser, said in an interview. He added, “The economics are powerful and ultimately will prevail.”

‘It Saddens Me’

A man in a blue boat hands a paddle to a woman in a yellow boat in calm waters.

Kayakers prepared for a sunset launch in Searsport, near Sears Island.

In Searsport, many residents fear that state officials will bypass Mack Point, which sits on private land and would need to be leased for millions of dollars a year — costs that would probably be passed on to utility customers.

Sears Island, in contrast, is owned by the state. Under a previous agreement with conservation groups, two-thirds of its woods and beaches are to be a nature preserve. The other third is zoned for a port.

Supporters of choosing the island site include Habib Dagher, a godfather of Maine’s offshore wind efforts and the founding executive director of the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center. He suggested it was worth trading the existing open space of the island for lower energy prices and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

“All of us would like to think that we can have renewable energy with zero impact on the environment — as you know, it’s not possible, right?” Dr. Dagher said in an interview at his wind lab. “So our goal, and our challenge, is, how do we minimize impact on environment as we embark on this transformational energy system?”

Conservation groups have fought development on Sears Island for decades, beating back a nuclear power plant, a gas import terminal and more. They reject the idea that they must lose that fight now — even as they lament climate change.

Rolf Olsen is a retired marketing executive and an avid day hiker. He kayaks and likes to swim in Penobscot Bay after mowing his lawn. He drives a white plug-in Toyota Prius and is vice president of a group called Friends of Sears Island, and he sat on a state advisory panel over where to locate the wind port, which he says should be at Mack Point.

On a recent hike, he described what a Sears Island port might look like, in place of the oaks and the birches.

“I have a picture in my mind’s eye. You know, it’s huge, flat, towering concrete and steel,” he said. “It saddens me.”

So, he added, does the warming of the planet.

“I have a granddaughter who’s 3. She’s going to have to live in a different world.”