Major Federal Goals Achieved for Siting Renewable Energy Projects and the Challenges Ahead

In October 2012, the Obama administration passed an important milestone in siting 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects - three years ahead of the objectives laid out in federal law - to encourage the development of vast resources on public land. Constructing large amounts of expensive electric transmission lines and concerns over habitat impacts to endangered species pose potential hurdles for these and other large-scale renewable energy projects. 

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The U.S. Department of the Interior in October passed an important milestone in approving renewable energy projects on public lands a full three years ahead of objectives set forth by federal law. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Oct. 9, 2012, announced approval for the  Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy project located in southern Wyoming. With that approval, the Obama administration passed the benchmark of approving siting for 10,000 

megawatts of renewable energy projects.1
 
According to a fact sheet provided by the Bureau of Land Management, the 220,000-acre project will feature 1,000 wind turbines with a capacity to generate up to 3,000 megawatts of
electricity, which is enough power for 1 million homes.
 
Obstacles remain, however, for fully implementing these and other renewable projects from preliminary stages to actual operation and connection to the grid. Detractors of large, commercial-scale renewable energy projects on public land often raise concerns over the potentially harmful impacts to endangered species and essential habitat associated with the technologies employed and the significant amount of land required for projects. When considering construction and siting of electric transmission power lines, state and federal regulators face difficult questions about how to bring renewable energy generated in remote areas to the markets where power is needed.
 
Authority and Siting Trends
  • Section 211 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 included a nonbinding goal to urge the Secretary of the Interior “to have approved non-hydropower renewable energy projects located on the public lands with a generation capacity of at least 10,000 megawatts of electricity” within 10 years.2
  • Before 2009, the Bureau of Land Management had never approved a solar project on public land, and up to that time only limited amounts of wind and geothermal projects had been sited.
  • Approvals since 2009 have included 6,126 megawatts of solar energy, 3,863 megawatts of wind energy and 425 megawatts of geothermal power, for a total of 10,413 megawatts of additional capacity. 
Transmission Obstacles and Needs
  • The need for electricity infrastructure overall is staggering. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, up to $1.5 trillion will be needed by 2030 to maintain, modernize and update the nation’s electric generation, transmission and distribution systems.3
  • State renewable portfolio standards, federal planning directives and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions have driven strong interest in alternative energy projects, as well as their integration into the electric grid.
  • The challenge—especially in the western U.S.—is that ideal locations for generating commercial-scale renewable energy projects are located in rural areas many miles away from distribution and load centers, which will require several thousand miles of new electric transmission lines.4 Determining the rationale for who pays for those new lines has been a source of contentious debate, especially when multiple states are involved.
  • A March 2012 report by the Edison Electric Institute, the umbrella organization representing investor-owned utilities, said its members are in the midst of implementing 13,000 miles of transmission line additions and upgrades to integrate renewables, reflecting upward of $49 billion in company investments.5
  • According to a 2012 study by the Western Governors Association, state policies are expected to double the amount of renewable energy produced in the West by 2022. The report went on to say, “Integrating these resources into a reliable and affordable power system will require an unprecedented level of cooperative action within the electric industry and between the industry and state, subregional and federal entities.”6
  • CSG created a Transmission Line Site Compact Advisory Panel, under the auspices of the National Center for Interstate Compacts, to facilitate the development of regional interstate compacts intended to improve coordination among stakeholders in the siting and permitting process for interstate projects.
Environmental and Conservation Group Concerns
  • Environmental groups like the American Bird Conservancy have expressed opposition to certain large wind farm projects they believe do not properly mitigate injuring or killing bird populations—particularly species of eagles, songbirds, sage grouse and water fowl. This group and others often cite a 2009 paper from a U.S Fish and Wildlife Service official that estimated wind turbines kill up to 440,000 birds per year.7
  • The conservancy and the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance have opposed the most recent wind project sited by the Bureau of Land Management on the grounds that it did not consider other alternatives as required under the National Environmental Policy Act to avoid up to 64 golden eagle deaths per year.8
  • Pressures to find enough habitat for endangered or threatened species, due to the large footprint needed for some utility projects, have caused significant problems and delays. For example, the discovery of an endangered species of desert tortoise on the site of a $2.2 billion solar project in California delayed construction and cost more than $56 million in species protection and relocation expenses.9
References:
1 Bureau of Land Management. "Bureau of Land Management Record of Decision Project Fact Sheet." October 9, 2012. 
3 "Report Card for America’s Infrastructure 2009." American Society of Civil Engineers.
5 "Transmission Projects: At a Glance." March 2012. Edison Electric Institute, p. xiii
6 "Meeting Renewable Energy Targets in the West at Least Cost: The Integration Challenge." June 10, 2012. Western Governors Association, p. 1. 
7 "Towers, Turbines, Power Lines, and Buildings – Steps Being Taken by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to Avoid or Minimize Take of Migratory Birds at These Structures." October 2009 Albert Manville, Division of Migratory Bird Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service. P, 268.
9 "Saving Desert Tortoises is a Costly Hurdle for Solar Projects." Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times. March 4, 2012. 
 

Major Federal Goals Achieved for Siting Renewable Energy Projects and the Challenges Ahead