Categorized | Renewables

Are the Feds Getting ‘Smart From the Start’ with Renewable Energy?

In releasing its new report, “21st Century Government:  A Simpler, Smarter Regulatory System,” the Obama administration highlighted its “smart from the start” approach to large-scale renewable energy development on public lands. While the Obama administration has made progress – more than any previous administration – in advancing clean energy development, it is essential that lessons learned from initial efforts to develop renewable energy be used to develop a smarter approach moving forward.

In reality, the administration’s efforts to promote clean energy development have not been as smart as they could and should be. And they have been slow to start. In all fairness, oil the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year diverted enough energy and expertise among key agencies in the federal government, including the White House, to slow progress on the clean energy front. You can see the irony, of course, since building a clean energy economy is essential to reducing our oil dependency. But that excuse is gone now, and the Obama administration is focused on accelerating responsible renewable energy development.

But the slow progress in clean energy development can’t be blamed solely on the Obama administration. A real roadblock to clean energy development has been the lack of certainty that Congress will commit essential funding for renewable energy projects. For years, Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives. In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy. Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited, support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year. And this is bound to bring about another rush to get projects done, which leads to hurried planning and analysis of impacts on water, wildlife and the environment.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has encouraged them to do.

For its part, the U.S. Department of the Interior is working to put in place a process for solar development that would get good projects done faster and more cost effectively.  We’re urging the Interior Department to make the program truly Smart from the Start. That means starting with good planning and project siting. Developing projects in areas where conflicts with wildlife, wild lands, and other important natural and cultural resources are minimal — making the probability of success that much higher — is clearly smart.  Even better, these projects should be close to transmission lines (or places where transmission lines are likely to be) so that the power generated can be delivered without having to build new, expensive transmission corridors. This is smart, too.  And even better would be to recycle landscapes that have already been damaged like old mines or worn-out farm lands – that way a solar power plant can give new life to already degraded lands and minimize impacts on pristine places and wildlife habitats.

Of course, not all impacts can be avoided in all places, so a means to mitigate unavoidable impacts is needed as well. BLM policy is to protect sensitive wildlife and improve habitats for threatened and endangered species. Smart planning, especially if done at a larger, landscape level, instead of on a project-by-project basis, can improve the likelihood that impacts can be avoided, minimized and mitigated where necessary.

Finally, if a means can be found to do much of the environmental review and analysis ahead of time for the places best-suited for clean energy projects, it would help speed up planning, permitting and construction. This isn’t complicated either. It simply requires coordination between government agencies, developers and other stakeholders. That way we can ensure that any unanticipated and  unintended impacts of a project are identified early and minimized and mitigated.

The Obama administration is on the right track in proposing to be Smart from the Start as it encourages clean energy development and promotes a clean energy economy. But to be successful and smart, it needs to keep things simple. Put projects in the right places, mitigate any unavoidable impacts, and streamline the processes required to ensure that clean energy gets permitted and built in an environmentally sound and efficient way. That’s a 21st century strategy based on old-fashioned common sense.

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Jim Lyons is the Senior Director, Renewable Energy at Defenders of Wildlife. Jim leads a project aimed at promoting wildlife-friendly and environmentally responsible renewable energy development on public lands.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.