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It Doesn't Have To Be So Hard: Making Renewable Energy Siting Easier

Nov 12, 2013

There is a deep irony at work in the intersection of energy and the environment. The biggest threat to our planet is climate change, caused in large part by our profligate use of energy. And one of the biggest solutions is to de-carbonize our electricity system by building renewable energy projects, linked to cities and large urban centers with new transmission lines. These renewable energy systems can require large amounts of land. But with careful planning, we can preserve conservation values while significantly reducing our carbon footprint.

A second challenge is that most renewable energy and transmission development will take place on private lands, especially farms and ranches.  While farmers and ranchers are eager to see the economic benefits of hosting wind farms and supplying biomass for energy, the track record with transmission development in America gives many of them pause.  But again, new policies and practices can help make new infrastructure welcome in the American countryside. 

At the request of the Energy Foundation, we have developed some ideas for improved siting policies and practices, as part of America’s Power Plan.  The Plan is a comprehensive response to the rapid changes in the power sector coming from new technologies, consumer demand, and policy. Siting new renewables and the associated infrastructure will be a key part of that transition. 


How much land will be needed to move to a high-renewables future?  The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) calculates that getting 80 percent of our power from renewables would use about 200,000 square kilometers, less than 3 percent of the U.S. land base.  Most of this would come from biomass production, such as growing prairie grasses and other fast growing species specifically for energy production.  Wind power, though it needs open spaces, only takes a small amount of land away from farming and ranching.  In one scenario, NREL estimates wind would need 87,000 square kilometers of space, but only use up 4,200 square kilometers. 

In a core scenario, NREL estimated the need for about 120 million “megawatt-miles” of new transmission, an investment of $6.5 billion per year between now and 2050 to reach 80 percent renewables. While this seems like a lot of lines—our current system has 150-200 million megawatt-miles—most of this would be built in the sparsely-populated wind belt (see the accompanying map).  NREL also created a “constrained transmission” scenario, which limited new grid construction and forced more renewable generation closer to load.  That scenario required only 25 million megawatt-miles additional, but had higher overall costs and more congestion.  With thoughtful and integrated planning, we believe we can maximize the use of current lines and minimize the need for new.


Source: NREL, Renewable Electricity Futures.


While the Beltway conventional wisdom is that building transmission lines is “simply not feasible,” lines are in fact being built.  Transmission investment is rising from a mid-1990s trough, with much new development intentionally benefiting renewables.  In fact, new lines are starting to fill in the NREL map already.  The three power systems stretching from Texas to Minnesota, called ERCOT, the Southwest Power Pool and MISO, have approved $20 billion of new lines to bring wind power to market. 

Rural communities, landowners, and policymakers in these areas are willing to live with transmission partly because they see the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy, and understand the need for infrastructure.  As the saying goes, “If you love renewables, you’ve got to at least like transmission.” 

It is also helps that developers are becoming more sensitive to the concerns of communities and regulators. One developer, Clean Line Energy Partners, has had 600 public meetings in the process of siting a line from Iowa to Illinois. 

And the federal government has become proactive in addressing siting issues on public lands early and openly, through programs launched by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.  The Bureau of Land Management has set aside 1,000 square miles of land in 24 solar-energy study areas and is evaluating them for appropriate development. These areas have the technical potential to generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of electricity or enough to power 29 million homes.  Interior is working to encourage development of all renewables, especially offshore wind on the East Coast. 

As part of America’s Power Plan, we have developed a set of recommendations for smart reforms of policies and business practices.   With the right changes, we can see continued success in siting new generation and transmission. 

First, of course, we must maximize the efficiency and use of the existing grid.  “Non-wires” alternatives like targeted efficiency improvements, demand response, and distributed generation can help us wring more out of our existing transmission system. 

But the current grid was built for fossil and nuclear generators.  A system for renewables will need to increase access to new regions, like the Midwestern wind belt and the sunny Southwest.  It will also need to be more interconnected, to minimize the impacts of variable generation, like wind and solar.

A package of reforms and best practices can reduce conflict and streamline the process of siting new projects, making it faster, cheaper, and less controversial. 

New approaches include engaging stakeholders early, accelerating innovative policy and business models, and employing “smart from the start” strategies to avoid the risk of environmental and cultural-resource conflicts.  Institutional reforms may be the most critical, such as greater coordination among regulatory bodies and improved grid planning and operations.  Developers and regulators should work with landowners to develop new options for private lands, including innovative compensation measures. 

A number of these improvements are being deployed already, such as in the Western Governors’ Association Regional Transmission Expansion Planning Project and the Interior Department’s pro-active work to site America’s first offshore wind farm. 

Modernizing the grid and transitioning to clean power sources need not cause harm to landowners, cultural sites or wildlife. On the contrary, taking action today will provide long lasting benefits. 

By Carl Zichella, Johnathan Hladik and Bentham Paulos

Zichella and Hladik are speaking at the Renewable Energy World Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida on November 13 in session 19B - "Seizing Opportunities in Wind Development and Planning."

Carl Zichella is Director of the Western Transmission, Land & Wildlife Program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.   Johnathan Hladik is an attorney and energy policy advocate for the Center for Rural Affairs.  Bentham Paulos is the manager of America’s Power Plan.

The information and views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of or the companies that advertise on this Web site and other publications. This blog was posted directly by the author and was not reviewed for accuracy, spelling or grammar.

Our nation’s electricity system is undergoing a rapid transformation. Market forces, driven by public demand for cleaner, more efficient energy, and technological innovation are redefining America’s power sector. These trends will change the electricity system and utility businesses at their ...


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