Burning Green Energy’s Chances of Survival

March 30, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

Grey Plover, U.S. Fish  Wildlife Service image.

Grey Plover, U.S. Fish Wildlife Service image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some prominent environmental groups are suing to stop a proposed solar farm in Northern California. But that litigation is just one of the hurdles that green projects must overcome. Besides surviving the permitting process, renewable energy interests must also find the space on transmission lines, if they can get them built.

Like any utility-type project, wind and solar plants must go through the regulatory maze. It’s always an arduous process that most often results in compromises, which includes either a relocation of a proposed facility or some promise to reinvest profits in environmental awareness.

What makes green opposition to its own cause so uncommon is that such interests already have their share of critics who argue that without generous subsidies, their fuels would not be economically viable. Through suits, such as the ones just filed against U.S. Department of Interior, the environmental groups are seeking to halt any development that would harm wildlife.

“We drew a line in the sand and the Calico solar project crossed it,” says Johanna Wald, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which joined with the Sierra Club and the Defenders of Wildlife to stop development. “The Calico project, however, is an example of a solar project done wrong from the start.”

The groups want the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which are part of the Interior Department, to relocate the solar farm away from Mojave Desert’s Pisgah Valley to an agricultural region that has fewer environmental implications. The green groups were rejected.

Sound familiar? Conservation groups have told California authorities that a proposed wind project there would kill off rare birds. Green groups are opposing a 100-turbine wind farm in Kern County that is to be developed by NextEra Energy. Opponents want the project relocated.

A move is now afoot to locate some renewable projects to brownfields, or to places where heavy industry has picked up and moved. In those cases, the accompanying transmission is already in place and the lands are in dire need of being cleaned. The flip side, however, is that it may cost more to prime the property for development than the actual projects are worth.

Wind and solar are typically built on the outskirts where large plots of land exists and where such resources can be easily captured. Moving them to other locations may not be optimal, given that the wind speeds need to average 14.7 miles per hour as well as be able to interconnect with transmission systems. Solar regions, meanwhile, must have abundant sunshine and also have the same ability to connect with the transmission grid.

Some smart people are now trying to resolve these issues. The latest is coming from the MIT Energy Initiative, which says that a greater federal role is required. That’s because wind and solar projects need long distance transmission lines that must traverse through multiple jurisdictions, each of which can say ‘no.’

Earlier laws have tried, and failed, to address that matter. The 2005 Energy Policy Act attempted to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the “backstopping” authority to step in and force reluctant regions to move forward. But the courts ruled that if the states declined then FERC could not overrule them. Since 2005, only two cases have come before FERC but both of them withdrew their petitions to build because the demand for electricity had fallen.

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