Now Comes the Hard Part of the IRA: The Problems of Siting Wind and Solar, by Sammy Roth of LA Times

Wind turbines in California Desert from BLM website


Like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill does for fuels projects, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) or Big Climate Bill, or whatever, puts enormous bucks in the pipeline (so to speak) for solar and wind (as well as other) projects. The key thing about solar and wind, though, is the massive footprint.  As usual, Sammy Roth of the L.A. Times does a good job of presenting diverse perspectives in this article. We’ll discuss the Build Back Better forest-related leftovers in this bill in another post.  NB: “an area much bigger than California.”

But finding good sites for all those renewable energy projects — and contending with opposition from landowners, Native American tribes and even environmental activists — could be just as challenging as getting a bill through Congress.

Across the country, local opposition has slowed or blocked many renewable energy facilities, and land-use conflicts are likely to intensify. Princeton University researchers estimate that zeroing out U.S. carbon emissions by 2050 could require installing solar panels and wind turbines across more than 225,000 square miles, an area much bigger than California.

“There’s this misperception that there’s plenty of land,” said Eric O’Shaughnessy, a renewable energy researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “That is true, but [solar and wind farms] have to go in specific places.”…

Two recent studies help explain the sources of that opposition — and what might be done to alleviate local concerns.

The first study, from researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explored 53 renewable energy projects that were delayed or blocked over more than a decade. It found that the most common sources of opposition were concerns about environmental impact and land use.

California and neighboring states have seen both types of conflicts. Some conservation groups have tried to block solar and wind farms in the Mojave Desert, citing potential harm to desert tortoises, golden eagles and Joshua trees, among other animals and plants. Just this month, Ormat Technologies Inc. paused construction of a geothermal project in Nevada while federal wildlife officials study whether it would harm the endangered Dixie Valley toad.

Then there’s San Bernardino — California’s largest county by land area. Three years ago, it banned solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres, spurred by locals who worried that the sprawling projects would industrialize their rural communities.

Local people (of all ethnicities, Indigenous or not)  can also be concerned about wildlife, bird and other impacts.  Even people who might not always agree with conservation groups (e.g. ranchers).

Some clean energy advocates consider that type of opposition to be, at best, NIMBYism and, at worst, thinly veiled climate denial.

Philosophical Questions: Can Indigenous people be NIMBY’s or be dismissed at climate denialists?  When do local people have legitimate concerns about any kind of new infrastructure and who decides whose concerns can be dismissed?

But Lawrence Susskind, an urban planning professor and the MIT study’s lead author, said local concerns of all kinds need to be taken seriously. His research has convinced him that speeding up the clean energy transition will be possible only if developers take the time to make a good-faith effort to gather input from communities before dumping solar and wind farms on them.

Too often, Susskind said, companies exclude local residents until the last minute, then try to steamroll opposition — to their own detriment. His study cited 20 projects that were blocked, some by lawsuits or other forms of public resistance.

“If you want to build something, you go slow to go fast,” he said. “You have a conversation, not a confrontation.”


I agree and wonder how does” going slow to go fast” fit with getting it done by 2030? Or would it be more honest (yes I know, politicians (!)) to say we are on a path, this is the best path we can agree on, and we’ll get to where we get to.

Stanford University researchers hope to facilitate similar compromises for the rest of the country.

Not to diss Stanford, but should there be others engaged in developing those compromises across the country? I would tend to see this as a role of State government. For example, I’d see at least Colorado School of Mines and CSU involved, the former the energy experts, the latter the rural people, wildlife and agriculture experts. This big bag o’ bucks is an opportunity to build governance bridges IMHO.

Stanford’s Dan Reicher told The Times he has convened more than 20 groups — representing the solar industry, environmental advocates, Native American tribes, the agriculture industry and local governments — in an “uncommon dialogue” to discuss land-use conflicts involving large solar farms. It’s modeled after a dialogue he convened for the hydropower industry and conservation groups that led to an unprecedented agreement between those long-warring factions.

Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects — and do a better job communicating with local residents and conservationists when they think they’ve found good locations.

“Done well, siting is a highly technical process that also lends itself to significant input,” Reicher said.

O’Shaughnessy agrees on the need for public engagement upfront.

The Lawrence Berkeley researcher was lead author of the second recent study, which found that solar and wind farms typically are built in rural areas with low-income populations — and those projects can be either a benefit or a burden to those communities, depending on local factors. Construction jobs and tax revenue can be a boon, while loss of agricultural land can be a big loss.

Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.

The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison with the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which, unlike renewable energy, can expose residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxic substances. The low-income communities of color that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.

Note that “solar and wind farms typically are built in rural areas with low-income populations”. If we look at places in the interior West anyway where build out has occurred, this seems to be the case.  They may be particularly vulnerable to climate change consequences, but sometimes are, and sometimes aren’t communities of color.

I also think there’s a difference between drilling impacts and the impacts of other fossil fuel infrastructure (refineries) that is not clear here.  For one thing,  drilling may not be close to communities at all, as we see in much federal lands drilling.

Taking steps to ensure that solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. It’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.

“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”

The key question is whether enough clean energy can be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re being harmed.

“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.

The national trade group Solar Energy Industries Assn. agrees with that assessment.

Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.

“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.

I see a tension here.. going slow to go fast, vs. climate emergency and do it now. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

2 thoughts on “Now Comes the Hard Part of the IRA: The Problems of Siting Wind and Solar, by Sammy Roth of LA Times”

  1. I wonder how the accounting will go vis a vis the vaunted 30 by 30 vision. 225,000 is a lot in a biodiversity context, especially in light of the footprint horror stories (and photographs) upon which we’ve relied so heavily when preaching on the evils of oil and gas. And what will happen when the technology is developed to enable a smaller renewable footprint? Will we tear it all down, and what will be the cost of doing so or retrofitting and, importantly, acquiring the needed raw materials? Assuming we’re at the max of our technological capability seems the same as assuming we can’t ever make nuclear a safe alternative. So maybe we should dedicate a significant chunk of resources to energy research
    I don’t see risk assessment conversations being anywhere near where they need to be for a vision like this to be taken seriously. But of course it is being taken seriously, as the specious claims of NIMBYism suggest.

  2. “Reicher hopes the solar discussions will lead companies to make smarter decisions about where to build projects.” Can you say planning? Ideally, we would be asking everyone to help us decide where are the best places to put the things we have agreed we need to have, rather than arguing about each place we propose to put something. I agree that this is not easily done well quickly, but there are places we could get started on quickly. (I just drove through a vast expanse of empty, windy central Montana, and saw only a couple of small windfarms among the cows and wheat fields.)


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