Building large energy projects is hard business. Among the greatest challenges renewable power plant developers face is the question of where to build a new facility. This process, known as “siting,” is much more complicated than finding land with strong wind speeds or solar irradiation. A tangled web of interrelated factors such as access to electric transmission, conflicts over competing land use, and environmental degradation must be navigated through multiple federal, state, and local regulatory permitting processes. It is exceedingly rare for a major project to sail through the siting process smoothly.
Renewable energy projects have repeatedly come up against roadblocks across the country. This is even true in the Northeast, a region characterized by strong clean energy aspirations. Cypress Creek Renewables’ Bear Ridge Solar Project in upstate New York was rejected by local regulators for being non-compliant with local zoning ordinances. Eversource’s Northern Pass transmission project, intended to bring clean hydroelectric power from Quebec to New England was rejected by the state of New Hampshire over concerns that the transmission line would impact tourism. Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid’s Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts, the first large-scale offshore wind facility in the United States, has faced delays due to concerns over impact on the fishing industry.
Given such challenges with siting clean power plants, proponents of decarbonizing our economy recognize streamlining is necessary to achieve a clean energy future. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden vows to “cut red-tape to promote faster and easier permitting” to achieve his goal of a carbon-free power industry by 2035. New York has already taken concrete steps to alleviate administrative burdens by creating the nation’s first Office of Renewable Energy Siting with a mandate “to improve and streamline the process for environmentally responsible and cost-effective siting of large-scale renewable energy projects across New York.”
As clean energy expands, siting complexity will increase
Fully decarbonizing the U.S. economy is a massive task. A recent study found that to reach 90% clean energy by 2035, the United States would need to build approximately 75 gigawatts of new solar, wind and storage capacity a year for the next 15 years. According to the study’s companion memorandum, renewable growth at this scale would require approximately 5,100 square miles of land for ground-mounted solar and 58,000 square miles for wind power plants. That’s a huge amount of land: most of the State of Connecticut for solar generation and the entire State of Illinois for wind—with still a larger geographic footprint for energy storage and other enabling technologies.
Of course, there are ways to moderate such a massive need for land, as solar and wind generation can co-exist with other productive uses of land. Solar generation