The planet’s largest potential source of electricity is rapidly becoming cheaper and more efficient, so why is it so hard to scale up? The question rankles Dan Reicher, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment who sees increasing opposition to large-scale solar energy installations – projects that span hundreds or even thousands of acres – as a serious issue in combatting climate change. The former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy and environmental attorney might have considered litigating the issue in the past, but times have changed. “The problems have gotten so big and complex, they often don’t lend themselves to going to court,” he said. So Reicher turned to another tool he has honed over decades in environmental advocacy, energy policymaking, business, law, and teaching: talking.
In the fall of 2021, Reicher was at a meeting of an advisory board of his alma mater, Dartmouth College’s Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy & Society. In casual conversation, fellow board member Abby Ross Hopper, CEO of the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), noted community pushback was making siting large-scale solar increasingly difficult. “The timing seemed particularly problematic,” Reicher recalled thinking. “We have the potential for large-scale and affordable clean energy that could make a real difference in combatting climate change, but it’s seeing rising resistance across the nation.”
Over the next 10 years, solar energy output in the U.S. is projected to increase five-fold compared to current levels driven by declining capital equipment costs as well as federal incentives provided by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, along with state mandates.
The buildout of utility-scale solar energy in the U.S. will occupy approximately 10 million acres, an area comprising about 0.5% of the land mass of the lower 48 states. Related land use issues, such as wildlife impacts and farmland conversion, can be fraught.
Reicher thought the issue could be a good fit for an “Uncommon Dialogue,” a Woods Institute initiative for convening cross-sector experts and stakeholders to surface and analyze research findings, economic influences, social insights and market or policy-based solutions to address serious environmental and energy challenges.
A previous Uncommon Dialogue Reicher spearheaded had produced a commitment from industry and environmental groups focused on the “3Rs” of the nation’s more than 90,000 dams: rehabilitate some for safety, retrofit some for power, and remove some for conservation. The agreement eventually led to $2.3 billion in federal funding to implement the recommendations of the dialogue’s working groups, as well as several major policy proposals currently moving through the Congress.
As Reicher looked into large-scale solar development, he realized the energy industry was often at odds with conservation interests, farmers, tribes, and other groups concerned about the loss of natural and working lands, aesthetic impacts, and a lack of development-related economic benefits for local communities. After exploratory meetings with SEIA, Reicher reached out to The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The powerhouse environmental organization was working to accelerate deployment of renewable energy to fight climate change and do so while protecting nature and people.
In February 2022, Stanford, SEIA, and TNC launched the Uncommon Dialogue on Large-Scale U.S. Solar Development and Land Conservation, bringing together groups ranging from renewable energy companies to land conservation groups to organizations focused on empowering historically marginalized communities.
John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose colleague had participated in the hydropower Uncommon Dialogue, was eager to answer the call. However, his hope for similar success with the solar dialogue was tempered during an early meeting.
“It was interesting to see one set of stakeholders show a map of areas of the country they thought unsuitable for large-scale solar and another show a map based on their own priorities,” Rogers recalled. “It felt like there was very little area not blacked out on one map or the other. That encapsulated the challenge well—and also made the need for this Uncommon Dialogue abundantly clear.”
Andrew Bowman, president and CEO of the Land Trust Alliance, worried that conservation issues wouldn’t be advanced in the process.
“I feared that there would be an overriding focus on building more utility-scale solar projects as fast as possible at the expense of lands already in conservation status and high-value lands that still need to be conserved,” Bowman said.
Over 20 months of discussion, the “unlikely bedfellows,” as Bowman called the disparate groups, hashed out their differences, agreeing to continue the dialogue at the end of each meeting.
“We were surprised to see how committed so many organizations were to the process, especially organizations that differ in size and budgetary realities,” said Ben Norris, senior director of regulatory affairs at SEIA. “Industry is grateful for their work, and we’re all mission-driven to reduce emissions and decarbonize the power sector. Coming out of the hottest summer in recent history, we simply don’t have time to keep talking past each other; we need to speak as one.”
“We stayed with this process because we’re committed to accelerating the renewable energy buildout, and have to go smart to go fast,” said Jessica Wilkinson, TNC’s renewable energy deployment lead for North America.
To Bowman’s relief, they agreed to work toward advancing natural climate solutions as part of large-scale solar development. They also agreed to launch working groups on issues ranging from a risk-assessment and decision-making framework for siting large-scale solar projects to improving community and stakeholder engagement. All of this work is built around the dialogue’s three focus areas: climate, conservation and community.”
Earlier this month, the groups announced a formal agreement in which they committed to these and other goals focused on creating solar development policies and best practices that maximize carbon reduction, minimize impacts to natural and working lands, and equitably distribute solar deployment benefits, such as job creation. They plan to share these best practices with solar companies, local communities, environmental NGOs, government agencies, tribes and others as they are developed, and also push together for policies to support ambitious, responsible solar implementation and natural climate solutions.
“Now the real work begins,” Norris said. “We hope the dialogue grows in size from here, secures funding, and most importantly, provides much needed resources and tools to local authorities and other stakeholders. The stakes are too high to miss this moment.”
For his part, Reicher plans to keep up positive pressure on the dialogue groups to lower barriers to solar power that is developed in a way that advances climate, conservation and community goals. “Stanford has more of a role than convener and facilitator,” he said. “We are pressing all sides in an even-handed way to produce real results that could make a serious difference, as soon as possible, in fighting climate change.”
The Woods Institute recently launched an Uncommon Dialogue to address challenges facing U.S. electricity transmission development for solar, wind, and other new clean energy projects. This issue arose early in the solar Uncommon Dialogue given the importance of new transmission capacity in developing renewable energy projects and the increasing resistance to new transmission projects across the country. The solar dialogue participants decided, after significant discussion, that this major challenge was better handled in in a separate negotiation process.
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