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Removing “soft barriers” to the clean energy transition

Clunky permitting processes are keeping U.S. renewable energy projects in gridlock. Experts on energy and politics discussed the challenges, opportunities, and strategies to equitably accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels.

A person silhouetted against a sunset sky looks up at transmission power lines.
A critical bottleneck in the clean energy transition is getting approval to connect renewable energy sites to the grid through transmission lines. (Image credit: Zheng Zaishuru / iStock)

Landmark climate legislation from the Biden administration made billions of dollars available to support the U.S. transition to clean energy, but money is only half the battle, according to panelists in a Nov. 14 webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Political and energy experts from Stanford, the U.S. government, and the private sector discussed how to: streamline the process for permitting clean energy projects; engage effectively with local communities; and accelerate the renewable energy transition with the environment, human health, and fairness in mind. The event was the latest offering in the Energy & Environment series of webinars from the Woods Institute.

Effective, efficient, and transparent permitting

The conversation came on the heels of publication of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, which outlined the increasingly localized and catastrophic impacts of climate change in the U.S. caused largely by the burning of coal, oil, and gas. In order to meet its ambitious 2030 net-zero emissions target set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. needs to rapidly transition to renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure deal funnel billions of dollars toward the green energy transition. However, many projects are stuck in administrative queues waiting for permits that would advance construction of solar farms, new transmission lines, and other essential infrastructure.

Getting the money is a piece of it. But getting all this soft stuff done that prevents you from spending that money or makes it inefficient with users is just as important.

Philip Bredesen Former Governor of Tennessee and Founding Chairman, Silicon Ranch

“The good news is we passed historic clean energy and climate legislation. The bad news is we passed historic clean energy and climate legislation,” said Ana Unruh Cohen, Senior Director for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Clean Energy & Infrastructure on the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

A system responsive to green energy needs

Decades of investment and construction have placed a few large fossil fuel power plants at the center of a web of grid connections. Transmission lines radiate outward, carrying power to neighborhoods, businesses, and urban centers. But a successful green energy transition relies on a patchwork of large-scale renewable energy sites for wind and solar distributed across rural areas.

Although these facilities can be constructed much faster than their fossil fuel competitors, some require new networks of transmission lines to transport power, while others need approval to connect existing lines to the grid. In both cases, builders need signoff from government agencies who evaluate safety and environmental impact to proceed.

“We're not processing those very quickly. So that's caused some real indigestion in the system of building large-scale solar projects all over the country,” said Dan Reicher, a senior research scholar at the Woods Institute, of the backlog of thousands of interconnection requests. The result? It can take up to seven years to build projects that have already been approved and funded.

Drawing on his experience as the former governor of Tennessee, Philip Bredesen highlighted the role of high-ranking officials in setting the priorities to remove “soft barriers” such as permitting and IRS accounting rules. “The real power of those jobs is not saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ It’s the power to convene,” he said. For Bredesen, reforms could create a landscape where agencies are responsive to the unique needs of green energy, rather than conforming to a system designed for fossil fuels.

Community and environmental justice engagement

Time is of the essence, but many stakeholders worry that streamlining could lead to cutting corners on fairness, environmental safety, and engaging communities that will be affected by renewable energy projects.

Reicher, a former U.S. Department of Energy leader who is currently leading multiple Woods Institute Uncommon Dialogues focused on clean energy, elevated the role of cross-sector conversation to strengthen environmental justice considerations without creating new barriers in the pipeline. Bringing together stakeholders from energy companies, tribes, government agencies, academia, agriculture, conservation groups, and others at the outset can pave the way for long-term collaboration.

Bredesen is also the founding chairman of Silicon Ranch, a firm that develops and operates solar power stations. He said that it can be easy to make permitting the enemy, but framing the conversation appropriately can also determine success on a project. He highlighted four key benefits from renewable energy projects that can often sway rural stakeholders less motivated by climate goals.

  1. Large-scale projects provide substantial tax revenue for public projects, school districts, and counties
  2. Construction creates good, short-term local jobs
  3. Access to clean energy is an asset when recruiting businesses to the area
  4. Clean energy projects are often complementary to community interests, such as protecting acreage for conservation purposes

Pulling the levers beyond funding

Invoking an old adage, Bredesen said, "If the only tool you’re ever given is a hammer, every problem is a nail.” The U.S. government may be losing sight of the big picture in the clean energy transition by focusing too much on appropriating funds and not enough on cleaning up processes behind the scenes. “Getting the money is a piece of it. But getting all this soft stuff done that prevents you from spending that money or makes it inefficient with users is, in a lot of ways, just as important,” he said.

Cohen noted that one way the Biden administration is working to remove roadblocks is through the Permitting Action Plan, which calls for a “whole of government” approach to reduce bottlenecks in the environmental review process.

Even with the need for regulatory reform, Reicher recognizes that there's a lot that can be done without major federal legislation. State authority, dialogue among stakeholders, and continuing technology innovation are all important for moving forward. In an ongoing Uncommon Dialogue, Reicher and collaborators are now tackling the issue of siting and building long-distance transmission lines.

“I remain very optimistic about what we can do to put clean energy at a scale that's really going to both do important things to address the climate crisis and do good things economically for regions all over the country.”

This webinar was moderated by Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Woods Institute.

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