Smart from the Start Renewable Development can Overcome Congressional Gridlock

Despite the outcome of the mid-term election, the United States is in the process of making a historic transition in the way we fuel the world’s largest economy – from dirty, high carbon energy like coal plants and oil to a combination of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and demand side management combined with some transitional use of natural gas.  While some newly elected members and older warhorses most notably from coal and oil states want to turn back the clock, the move toward renewables will be nearly impossible to halt.  Billions of dollars have been invested in this country and our competitors in Europe and Asia are moving forward with ambitious renewable energy investments at a breakneck pace.  The U.S. has been striving to be in the vanguard of this global transition, and much can be done to maintain this progress despite a gridlocked national legislature.

 But for the U.S to become a world leader in renewable energy, land conservationists and renewable energy advocates need to act decisively and cooperatively.  That means helping to find ways to help accelerate renewable development and appropriately sited transmission while preserving important wildlife habitat and the connections between them.   This work is occurring and beginning to achieve major successes.

 Over the last several years, representatives from a variety of western organizations (environmentalists, regulators, tribal leaders, transmission sponsors, utilities, and renewable energy advocates) have been working together to come up with a blueprint for how to develop renewable energy projects and needed transmission upgrades done in a way that captures most of the benefits for our people, today and for future generations.  They are collaborating in a number of ways: from project level consultations to establishing a long-term planning approach for development on public lands, to transmission planning across the entire western interconnection (14 western states, two Canadian provinces and part of Baja California, Mexico).  The work they are doing is unprecedented; it needs to be to match the challenge.  Thousands of megawatts of solar and wind projects have been approved and more are under consideration by authorities from the local to national levels.  Federal and state agencies are cooperating across the West and “zoning” renewable energy into lower-impact locations is under way across the region.  While much remains to be done, the trend line is in the right direction.

 How do we get the renewable energy transition right? 

 Smart from the start

 We do it by careful yet timely planning involving stakeholders from a variety of points of view (“being smart from the start”), avoiding obvious environmental cultural and community conflicts with siting of generation and transmission projects.  We do it by making efficient use of existing transmission infrastructure and taking advantage of emerging technologies (the interactive “smart grid”, bulk electricity storage, superconductors, etc.) which will jump start new industries and create jobs here at home, reducing the cost of grid-related construction we will need. And we do it by reducing energy consumption with efficiency, and controlling the way we use energy in our homes and businesses which will save us both time and money. 

 How much renewable energy do we need?  Perhaps the most useful goal is the one that is driving the need for change: greenhouse gas reductions (an 80-90% decrease in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 levels by 2050according to the IPCC).  Regardless of how you feel about it, the world is responding to this challenge and those who are on the cutting edge of the change will reap the largest benefits creating new businesses, industries and jobs.  If America does not lead, other nations, like China, will.

 Here in the West we are blessed with an extraordinary richness of renewable energy resources, enough energy to replace all our existing coal plants many times over.  The wind capacity of the northern plains and Rockies is truly world class and the solar resource of the southwest is arguably the best in the world.  We are lucky to have baseload geothermal energy distributed across much of the West to help ease the integration of variable resources into the grid. 

 This richness not only gives us a versatile, relatively cheap (and declining in cost), and reliable supply of renewable energy, it gives us the flexibility to be picky about where we put the developments and the transmission lines we need to get the power from where it is made to the people who will use it.  We can and should put development on as many disturbed sites or the least environmentally important areas as possible.  Failure to do so can lead to delays in permitting and approval we can ill afford.   As Karen Douglas, Chair of the California Energy Commission told Todd Woody of the New York Times recently: “The toughest, most controversial projects picked sites that were harder to permit because they had wildlife impacts,”

 A “Smart from the Start” approach enables us to preserve the ability of the habitats and species of the West to adapt to the coming changes warming will cause. Many species and their supporting habitats are literally moving on the landscape in response to warming conditions. Without the ability of different populations to genetically mingle the possibility of extinction goes way up.  We already know that business as usual energy usage will accelerate climate warming, putting as many as a third of the world’s species at risk.  So it behooves us to act carefully as we apply solutions to climate change to get them in the locations that do the least harm we can. If we want to leave a legacy of wild America for our descendants we need to consider ways to preserve these ecosystem connections as we plan our new energy system.