This post was originally published on the Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, Switchboard.
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 many renewable energy and transmission projects will be built 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, for instance, 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 developed some solutions 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 is a key part of that transition.
In our chapter: “Finding a Home for Renewable Energy and Transmission” we have developed a set of 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 inflexible 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 and flexible, to smoothly and reliably integrate 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 environmentally harmful.
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 that help avoid costly and lengthy legal disputes over eminent domain.
A number of these improvements are being deployed already, such as in the Western Electricity Coordinating Council’s Regional Transmission Expansion Planning project and the Interior Department’s pro-active work to site America’s first offshore wind farm.
How much land will be needed for this clean energy vision?
The National Renewable Energy Lab 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. Biomass takes up the bulk of this land. In comparison, wind power, though it needs open spaces, only takes a small amount of land away from farming and ranching. These impacts are similar to or less than the landscape impacts of equivalent conventional power sources once mining, drilling, transportation and infrastructure costs are included.
What about transmission?
NREL estimates 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).
While conventional wisdom holds that building transmission lines is “simply not feasible,” lines are in fact being built – lots of them. Transmission investment is rising from a mid-1990s trough, with much new development intentionally benefiting renewables. In fact, new lines are already starting to fill in the NREL map. The three power systems stretching from Texas to Minnesota, called Electricity Reliability Council of Texas, the Southwest Power Pool and MISO, have approved $20 billion of new lines to bring wind power to market.
But despite this progress, siting transmission is still no a walk in the park. The difficulty in establishing energy corridors and new rights of way has led to a helpful emphasis on maximizing the use of the existing grid system, and squeezing as much utility as possible out of the wires we now have. Reconstructing lines in existing corridors, increasing the voltage rating of lines through substation and equipment upgrades, better coordinating grid operations and collocating transmission with existing lines are all examples of this trend, in every corner of the country. This is good news for renewable power in that it is easier to accomplish, faster and far less controversial than establishing and permitting new utility rights of way. If we need to build new rights of way we should do so, using smart from the start principles. But getting better use of already-disturbed transmission corridors is the low hanging fruit of transmission for the renewable electricity future.
Improved Public Engagement
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 some traditional utilities, like Idaho Power, are dramatically improving their public engagement work to better consult with stakeholders, yielding transmission proposals that have been accepted and often supported by their customers and the general public.
And the federal government, through programs launched by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, has become proactive in addressing siting issues on public lands early and openly. 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.
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.
This blog was co-authored with Johnathan Hladik at the Center for Rural Affairs and Ben Paulos, project manager of America's Power Plan. Carl Zichella is the director for Western transmission for NRDC. He is the organization’s lead staff for western U.S. renewable energy transmission siting and serves on a nationwide team working on renewable energy development issues.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.