After decades of inaction on the climate crisis, the federal government is on the verge of enacting a comprehensive plan to cut pollution from global warming, with Arizona Senator Kirsten Sinema late Thursday agreeing to support the bill.
Now comes the hard part – or at least the next hard part.
Phasing out coal, oil and natural gas—the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis—will require building massive amounts of clean energy infrastructure, including solar farms, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries and electric power lines. The Senate bill allocated nearly $370 billion to support those and other technologies that could help reduce carbon emissions.
But finding good places to put all of these renewable energy projects — and facing opposition from nearby landowners, Native American tribes, and even environmental activists — can be as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.
Across the country, local opposition has slowed or banned many renewable energy facilities. Land use disputes are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that eliminating carbon emissions in the United States by 2050 could require the installation of solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much larger than California.
“There is a misconception that there is a lot of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That’s right, but [solar and wind farms] I have to go to specific places.”
The Senate deal, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, should accelerate the construction of renewable energy in America. It was the product of months of negotiations between Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (DN.Y.) and Senator Joe Manchin III (DW.Va), and it needs the support of all 50 Senate Democrats to overcome the united Republican opposition.
Sinema, who has declined outright, now says she will “move forward” with the bill once it overcomes one last procedural hurdle.
The bill would extend and expand tax credits for companies to build and purchase climate-friendly technologies, from solar and wind power to energy storage and carbon sequestration. Other provisions include $4,000 tax credits for the purchase of used electric vehicles and discounts for homes that replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. The bill would create a “green bank” with a budget of $27 billion, force oil and gas companies to pay fees of up to $1,500 per ton for methane leaks and pay farmers to change their practices.
Senate Democrats say it will help cut US carbon emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030, assuming it is passed in the Senate and House and signed off by President Biden. Independent analyzes support this claim. The Rhodium Group estimates emissions will be reduced by 31% to 44%, compared to 24% to 35% under the current policy. Research firm Energy Innovation offered a similar projection.
These would be big cuts – but not enough to meet US climate goals. President Biden has pledged to cut emissions by at least 50% by 2030. Sharper cuts will be needed over the following decades to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
It won’t be easy. And if policymakers fail to address domestic opposition to solar and wind power, that may not be possible.
Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what can be done to ease domestic concerns.
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The first study, conducted by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that have been delayed or halted over more than a decade. It found that the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impacts and land use.
California and neighboring countries experienced both types of conflicts.
Some conservation groups have attempted to ban solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to animals and plants such as desert turtles, golden eagles, and Joshua trees. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. A geothermal project is set up in Nevada while federal wildlife officials consider whether it will harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.
Then there is San Bernardino County – the largest county in California by area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than a million acres, spurred on by locals who were concerned that sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.
Some clean energy advocates consider this type of opposition to NIMBYism at best and climate denial obscured at worst.
But Lawrence Susskind, professor of urban planning and lead author of the MIT study, said local concerns of all kinds should be taken seriously. His research convinced him that accelerating the clean energy transition would only be possible if developers slowed down and made a well-intentioned effort to gather input from communities before flooding them with solar and wind farms.
Susskind said companies often exclude local residents until the last minute, and then try to escalate dissent — to their detriment. His study indicated 20 projects were eventually blocked, some due to lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.
“If you want to build something,” he said, “you go slow at speed.” “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”
That was the thinking behind the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an ambitious government effort to map which parts of the California desert are suitable for solar and wind farms and which parts should be protected. The plan took eight years to complete and covered more than 10 million acres — and it barely survived the Trump administration’s attempt to scrap it.
Renewable energy companies have criticized the maps as being too restrictive. But they have not taken their complaints to court, and the Sahara plan thus far appears to stand the test of time. The Biden administration recently approved a third clean energy facility under the plan — a 500-megawatt solar power plant, with 200 megawatts of battery storage, off Interstate 10 in Riverside County.
The Stanford researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.
Dan Richer of Stanford University told The Times that he called for more than 20 groups and companies — representing the solar industry, environmentalists, Native American tribes, the agricultural industry and local governments — to convene in an “unfamiliar dialogue” to discuss land-use disputes involving the Large solar farms. . It was modeled on a similar dialogue Reicher held within the hydropower industry and conservation groups, which led to an unprecedented agreement between those long-warring factions.
Reicher hopes discussions around solar energy will lead companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job of reaching out to locals and conservationists when they think they’ve found good sites.
“Done well, positioning is a very technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.
O’Shaughnessy agrees that public participation is needed in advance.
Researcher Lawrence Berkeley was the lead author of the second, recent study, which found that solar and wind farms are typically built in low-income rural areas—and these projects can either be a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenue can be a boon, while losing farmland can be a huge loss.
Renewable energy facilities can also destroy Native American sacred lands or distort cherished opinions.
The potential harms from solar and wind power pale in comparison to the risks of oil and gas exploration and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to chemicals linked to cancer and other toxins. Low-income communities of color that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
O’Shaughnessy said taking steps to ensure that solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities do not exacerbate ongoing injustice. It is a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of providing 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.
There will be projects going forward despite some local opposition. This is inevitable, said O’Shaughnessy. “It’s down to making sure there are engagement processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”
The key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe.
Susskind, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks it is possible. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and provide financial compensation to people or companies who feel they are still being harmed.
“More things will be built faster,” he said.
The Solar Energy Industries Group, an influential national trade group, agrees with this assessment.
Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early – and giving them a real chance to have their voice heard – is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford Initiative — and the Senate agreement makes it more important than ever.
“This is such a historic opportunity that we are on the cusp that we need to get it right,” Norris said.
Climate activists didn’t embrace everything in the Senate bill.
To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions requiring continued oil and gas leases on public and offshore lands, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.
As far as energy innovation is concerned, the benefits of the bill far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution from fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon will be avoided under other provisions.
Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabine Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, thinks the trade-offs are worthwhile. The best way to reduce oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce fuel demand – and the Senate bill does that.
Gerrard said a separate permit law could also be helpful, as it could simplify approval of clean energy projects.
Domestic opposition has emerged as one of the main obstacles to [solar and wind farms]Gerard said. “Trying to remove these obstacles is critical, even if at the cost of making it somewhat difficult to fight new fossil projects.”
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Gerrard pointed to the Communications Act of 1996 as a potential model for accelerating the development of solar and wind energy. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject the towers within a few months.
Local governments have also been prevented from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs – a type of radiation that has raised concerns about cancer and other health problems, although there is no strong evidence to support those concerns. Gerrard believes similar rules could be useful for solar and wind projects that are haunted by misinformation about purported health effects.
“Whether it’s wind farms, vaccines, or elections, people don’t always listen to the evidence,” he said.
“Going into the communities early and trying to get them involved – it helps,” he added. “But it’s not a foolproof silver bullet.”