California Law Expedites Permitting of Renewables, Battery Manufacture, and Powerlines: and a German National Approach

I like watching California grappling with climate change from the “laboratory of democracy” point of view. And I’m helped along in my observations by one of my favorite reporters, Sammy Roth.

California lawmakers passed a sweeping, polarizing energy bill last night, making it easier for state officials to buy electricity from beachfront gas plants and diesel generators, and to approve solar and wind farms over the objections of local governments.

What’s interesting about this at the macro scale is that California is faced with the reality of having reliable power- today and tomorrow. As I often say, you can’t solve an engineering problem with more words. While the chatterati opine about how easy it is to decarbonize, and the evil oil and gas industry preventing it, someone has to actually provide power.  So the Legislature grappled, and they came up with something that sounds…at least somewhat common-sensical.  It’s interesting that Roth refers to the bill as “polarizing”.  I wonder when a plain old disagreement is a “polarizing” disagreement. Or whether by naming perhaps garden-variety disagreements this way, we highlight the emotive extremes and invisibilize the center. Those boring and practical folks who want to deal with climate change AND keep the lights on.

Here’s a link to the article. For the purposes of TSW, though, I’d like to focus on the description of part of the bill that works on speeding up infrastructure buildout, in an earlier Roth piece for some ideas that might be of interest in expediting permitting on federal lands.

A separate provision would allow companies building solar farms, wind turbines and lithium-ion batteries — as well as electric lines to connect those facilities to the grid — to opt in to an accelerated approval process that doesn’t require sign-off from county governments. State officials would be required to conduct environmental reviews and approve or deny those projects within nine months. Legal challenges to any project approvals would need to be resolved by state courts within another nine months.

Needless to say, (at least some) local governments are less than thrilled.

Local governments have at times emerged as a serious obstacle to clean energy, with San Bernardino County supervisors banning solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres in 2019 and Shasta County supervisors set to vote next month on a wind farm moratorium. Shasta and Humboldt counties have both rejected proposed wind farms in recent years — an increasingly common occurrence across the Western U.S. as local residents raise concerns about environmental damage and diminished views.

Major solar companies have been focused on building better relationships with local officials rather than pushing to circumvent county approval, several people familiar with the industry’s thinking told The Times. The California Wind Energy Assn., on the other hand, supports Newsom’s plan to let the state handle permitting where developers prefer it, executive director Nancy Rader said.

The plan for speedier solar and wind approvals has also drawn support from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Developers who opt in to the streamlined process would need to hire union workers through project labor agreements.

“We think that’s a wise balancing of an option for developers who have their ducks in a row and want to go to the Energy Commission, which is extremely capable and competent and talented,” said Marc Joseph, an attorney representing IBEW.

Major environmental groups haven’t taken a position on Newsom’s proposal to streamline project approval, after an earlier provision that would have eliminated additional layers of review — including from the Coastal Commission — was removed.

Local governments, though, are furious.

In a letter opposing the bill, the California State Assn. of Counties, Urban Counties of California, Rural County Representatives of California and the League of California Cities said renewable energy facilities “can have enormous impacts on local communities.” They said the Energy Commission approval process is “overly broad, usurps local control, excludes local governments from meaningful involvement in major development projects within their jurisdictions, and could result in even more litigation.”

Two thoughts on this.. (1) could the Feds develop the same ideas for permitting on federal lands and leave the States out?

I’m just thinking federal land, but the Germans have draft laws for relaxing environmental requirements if their states don’t pony up the acres to meet federal requirements (yes, I know that the German government is very different):

With the “onshore wind energy law”, Germany’s 13 larger states have to have designated 1.4% of their surface area to onshore wind power by 2026; by 2032 they have to reach their respective target of 1.8-2.2%.

Bavaria, notorious for its anti-wind power policies, must reserve 1.8% of its land for onshore wind.

The states must do their own planning, guided by a set of uniform rules and modelling issued by the federal government, but can stick to individual distance rules if this doesn’t interfere with reaching the percentage target.

If, however, they do not manage to assign enough space to wind turbines, wind power investors would be automatically allowed to build new turbines in areas previously unavailable due to the distance rules. The country’s three city states, Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, must use 0.5% of their area for wind power…

While satisfied that the government is tackling too long planning procedures and legal hurdles for wind power, industry representatives strongly criticised the species protection rules for creating new legal uncertainties that would prolong procedures even more.

(2) Who decides what is NIMBY and what is environmental justice, and on what specific criteria?

If it is legitimate for the well-heeled in Redondo Beach to want gas-fired power plants removed from their community, is it equally legitimate for local governments of the less-well-heeled to not want wind turbines?


12 thoughts on “California Law Expedites Permitting of Renewables, Battery Manufacture, and Powerlines: and a German National Approach”

  1. “While the chatterati opine about how easy it is to decarbonize, and the evil oil and gas industry preventing it, someone has to actually provide power.”

    Do they? Ayn Rand might quibble.
    “The rational is always the rationality of the irrational.”
    — Felix Guttari from Chaosophy

    It baffles me how little discussion there is around here of the national political economy that is the driving force behind forest/natural resource policy. The two can’t be decoupled.
    Germany is a democratic socialist country. They generally understand the concept of, and power behind, socializing the necessities and allowing privatization of the luxuries. Here? Good luck getting the privatized necessity providers to lift one finger in the direction of action that benefits anyone but shareholders.

    Which brings me back to the Guttari quote above. I hear talk of “rational” people providing power and all those “irrational” idealists gumming up the works. What? The entire system is irrational — but oh, look at all those rational centrists staring down their nose at people who take serious issue with the irrational system within which ration reigns.

  2. Eric, thanks so much for your contributions to TSW. I love me a good political philosophy discussion and I agree with you that our issues reflect the larger political philosophy (I would say the economy is the outgrowth of the philosophy).

    As to the Germans, regardless of their understandings, they don’t seem to be making their climate targets and Merkel urged Biden to support a gas pipeline from Russia, which in retrospect doesn’t seem all that wise for climate nor national security. And those pesky Bavarians, who don’t want their forests converted to windfarms! It doesn’t seem to me that these issues (environmental) can be captured under “your socializing the necessities and privatizing the luxuries” framing.

    I probably am even more a fan of the irrational than you..I’m the one who calls it the “so-called Enlightenment, after all.

    But aren’t we fans of “science” these days and isn’t science (supposed to be) rational? It seems to me that “following the science” and being irrational might be in conflict. But perhaps not.

    And I was not staring down my nose at the chatterati. They have a good gig. They get paid for writing- and if they turn out to be wrong, they just move on and hope no one notices. In fact, when I retired I think I became one (except for the getting paid part).

    I don’t stare down my nose at anybody, I don’t think, but I do disagree with them. And I think in California the chickens are coming home to roost.

  3. Yeah, I could have phrased the “staring down the nose” thing better. Didn’t mean it pointed straight at you. But, I think you understand the context.

    As to the rational/irrational, I encourage you to dig into Chaosophy a bit. I think you misread the quote. I am no fan of the irrational.
    The problem as I see it is that the rational (science) is so often put to work in service of the irrational. When we focus exclusively on the tool (science/rationality) without asking hard questions about what the tool is being used to construct, or maintain,(often irrational systems/policies) we make a mockery of the tool. After which, we successful tool users scratch our heads wondering why the anti-science camp is suddenly able to so easily discredit it. The tool has to be in service of something that truly makes life better for the majority of people.

    Take the CDC’s handling of the pandemic for example. Arguably, the tools of health science have been turned against the hoi polloi to get them back to work in an economic system that isn’t serving their needs. We could have used the Swiss cheese approach like the nations that have successfully kept deaths down. But no. We doubled down on the money making Pharma tools, ignoring historically tried and true science. Ration, serving the irrational. As a result, skepticism grows.

    Circling back around now to the role of political economy in forest/environmental policy, I think as an example one only need turn to Andy’s recent 193+ post and take a hard look (sorry, couldn’t resist) at whether fire science (the rational) has been used to justify the irrational blowing up of fire budgets to the detriment of the original ologist mission of the USFS. I think there’s one heck of a debate to be had there. As to this post, I believe indeed the socializing/privatizing framing is precisely on point. Energy resources are essentially monopoly controlled in the U.S. and left to their own devices, they are in the process of cooking us all to death to make a few shareholders fabulously wealthy. Whereas, Norway, owns the means of oil production and has distributed the wealth to it’s citizens, thereby greatly increasing the standard of living for said ‘average’ citizen. Takeaway: when the people own the necessities, the people get to decide how, when, and where, the tools are employed.

    Germany? I don’t think you see the larger picture. They haven’t hit their goals because they are still in the process of transitioning to those tools that will hit them. That isn’t an oil pipeline … it’s LNG. The project was originally conceived (albeit, I agree, from a poor liberalist frame) to ease tension with their big neighbor under the liberal theory that embedding countries in an economic framework generally serves to keep the peace. It’s not Russia that broke the Minsk treaties. It’s NATO countries at the behest of the US’s big stick. Germany, and most of Europe, is stuck between a rock and hard place.

    I can draw these parallels all day. Are they a distraction from the blog’s purpose? Or, are they integral to breaking the wicked problems that just keep recycling here? I posit the latter.

    • I don’t think you can call anything you disagree with “irrational” Erik, that ain’t philosophy. I would argue that a socializing policy is irrational from where I’m sitting-putting government in control of something is a formula for waste and inefficiency. Not that our system is perfect, but I don’t think it is just an issue of people who disagree with support it being irrational. It is a matter different perspectives, which are legitimate and just as worthy as yours.

      • 1. Then argue. That was the entire point of my comment — that there isn’t enough discussion about the political economy that underlies forest management/policy on here.

        2. Your comment; however, is not an argument. Arguments contain facts. For example, try this bunch of facts on for size over your tired old Cold War era talking points:

        I’ll patiently be awaiting your considered, fact based, argument.

        • Additionally, legitimacy is earned through demonstration of fact. For example, it’s my ‘perspective’ that the earth is flat. Is my perspective legitimate?

          If we’re going to argue (in the classic sense) about what is rational, or irrational, you may want to tighten up your game before stepping on the field with this competitor. Sharon’s game is pretty dang tight, which is why I so enjoy my discussions with her. Please strive in the future to comport your comments similarly, or you’ll just be wasting my time.

      • Additionally, legitimacy is earned through demonstration of fact. For example, it’s my ‘perspective’ that the earth is flat. Is my perspective legitimate?

        If we’re going to have a discussion about what is rational, or irrational, you may want to tighten up your game before step on the field with this player.

        • That’s the problem. By hiding behind a pseudonym, no one has any idea who “this player” is. Including “this player’s” qualifications to define “facts.” My thought is that “legitimacy” requires a certain amount of transparency. Getting lectured by a ghost is difficult to take seriously. Plus, it appears “Anonymous” might be a “they” on this blog. There seems to be more than one of you.

          • Bob, those comments are mine. Eric Anderson. Don’t know why they posted anonymously.
            But here’s another data point for you to consider:

            *Attorney with certificates in Environmental, Natural Resource and Water Law for U Idaho Law, generally recognized today as one of the top environmental law schools in the country behind my advisor Dale Goble’s (wrote the book on the Endangered Species Act) leadership. *Interned at R1 OGC.
            *M.S. degree in bioregional planning and community design. Thesis: “The Forest Management Divide: Evidence From Administrative Comments on U.S. Forest Service Projects Indicating Why Environmental Interest Groups in the Northwestern U.S. Choose Whether or Not to Collaborate.”
            *Or try: “NEPA – Cumulative Effects of Past Actions: Why the U.S. Forest Service Will Prevail at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Friends of the Wild Swan v. Garcia”

            *7 yrs as crew boss of USFS Trail Crew
            *3yrs wild-land firefighter for the State of Montana
            *Happily married to a 20 yr. USFS fuels planner.

            • Thanks Eric: I think a few other posters have also inadvertently shown as “Anonymous.” That’s part of my confusion — not a unique designation and inconsistent posts from this “person”! Plus, real names and real credentials do add a lot to credibility! Appreciate the follow-up.

    • Eric, I said it was a gas pipeline.

      Anyway I agree with you that it’s also important to look at the broader picture. I would think if you belong to a community that feels it isn’t being heard (say on wind turbines, or nuclear or fossil infrastructure) and its concerns aren’t being taken seriously, it wouldn’t matter much if the decisionmakers were well-meaning bureaucrats or greedy capitalists inappropriately regulated. Or would it?

      You are invited to write what your vision of a great future for US federal lands would be, with or without the Forest Service or BLM. I’d be curious as to how it would work and what you think the outcomes would be.

  4. I hesitate to wade into this late, but I think there is an important question here about “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run” (Pinchot). If that is our criterion, is anyone arguing that “local control” (which usually looks a lot like NIMBY) would produce a better large scale outcome for necessities than more centralized (state, federal) planning?

    You ask an interesting question about environmental justice. In this context, maybe that just means giving disadvantaged communities an equal voice with other communities for their NIMBY position – not giving them preference over the greater good. Or maybe equity is a component of the greater good.


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