Communities get a strong voice in US shift to renewable energy
Stakeholders now care much more about local opposition to thousands of miles of transmission lines being built
Washington — When Mike Quigley first heard about plans for a major new electrical transmission line running through central Arizona, it was with a mix of emotions.
The 200km high-voltage line, known as Ten West Link, would bring solar energy from the Arizona desert to millions of consumers in California — part of the more than doubling of electrical grid capacity the government in October said is needed to decarbonise the energy sector by 2035.
Around the country, thousands of new miles of transmission lines must be built every year to support the US administration’s aim of switching to an economy built on green electrical power, according to government estimates.
Quigley, Arizona state director for conservation group the Wilderness Society, supports the goal of more renewable energy. But he was frustrated that the proposed line would cut through a wildlife reserve and a remote canyon, and would adjoin local communities.
“On principle I don’t think wildlife refuges are appropriate places to install massive infrastructure,” Quigley said.
“But who wants a big power line in their backyard? We were advocating that it shouldn’t go through the wildlife refuge, but also don’t want it to go through people’s backyards.”
Then came a surprise: officials and the project developer not only listened to concerns, but after a year of meetings changed the route, to instead largely follow an interstate highway.
Vice-president Kamala Harris attended the groundbreaking in January, and electricity is expected to flow in the coming months.
The US Bureau of Land Management, which approved the project’s alternative route, said in a statement that it recognised the importance of Ten West Link for future renewable energy projects, and thus invested a significant amount of time to proactively tackle potential concerns.
For Quigley, such “openmindedness” by officials feels like a key lesson as the US makes more than $30bn available for electrical grid upgrades, which the White House in October called the largest such investment in US history.
“We’re about to embark on an unprecedented buildout,” said Jill Tauber, who focuses on energy issues for Earthjustice, a public interest law group.
Along with others, it has been pushing President Joe Biden’s administration on a series of transmission principles that urge early, strengthened engagement with local communities.
“If you look at the history of infrastructure development in this country, all too often it’s been without input from impacted communities,” she said. “We need to do a lot more to ensure we’re building the right way and not just replicating historical inequities.”
While concerns about effective local consultation receive significant attention, Tauber said competing priorities, including the desire to quickly get new capacity in place, remain significant.
“In the dialogue happening nationally on this issue, there’s a sense that to build quicker, we need to eliminate protections — that they’re the root of the problem,” she said.
But openness to local concerns may also be important for ensuring the US transmission expansion does happen in a timely fashion.
Negotiations over Ten West Link’s route were “also a success for the line owner”, Quigley noted. “They’ll actually have their line finished, rather than being tied up in battles in court.”
Many interstate transmission projects have been shelved in recent years due to opposition from local groups and public utility commissions. Opposition to renewable energy initiatives, including transmission projects, rose 57% from May 2022 to May 2023 compared with the previous year, according to research by Columbia Law School.
Ageing and inadequate electricity transmission infrastructure, built for fossil fuels, poses a huge obstacle to a green transition, said Nathanael Greene, a senior advocate with the clean energy programme at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington think-tank.
Almost twice as many new renewable projects are waiting to be connected to the grid than are already operating, said Greene, who co-wrote a paper on the issue in September.
“We are at a unique moment,” he said. “We have an incredible opportunity to accelerate the buildout of clean electricity,” but that potential is “bottlenecking at the transmission system”.
Changing that is constrained in part by the complexities of getting multiple jurisdictions, landowners and others along a transmission corridor to agree to construction — especially of the large, interstate lines that are now a priority.
Historically power lines were smaller, for more local use, but now there is growing recognition that larger lines are badly needed, said Christina Hayes, executive director of Americans for a Clean Energy Grid, a coalition of industry, labour and other groups.
Policymakers and project developers have learnt from local opposition to oil and gas pipelines, she said, and similar opposition has led to delays of more than two decades for some transmission projects.
Now “there’s a real recognition that taking care of this on the front end forecloses litigation on the back end”, she said.
A range of regulatory shifts are proposed that could bolster requirements — and in some cases resources — for community engagement in new transmission projects, and legislators are actively debating the measures.
“There is bipartisan consensus that early and meaningful community engagement must be at the centre of any permitting reform effort,” said a spokesperson for Sen Martin Heinrich, who in June proposed legislation that seeks to speed up transmission line permitting.
That would happen in part by trying to ensure legally enforceable agreements are put in place between local communities and project developers, spelling out restrictions and any benefits local communities can expect.
While such agreements are not new, they have an uneven history, said Devashree Saha, director of the US clean energy economy programme at the World Resources Institute, a Washington think-tank.
“A lot of times, benefits really haven’t accrued to local communities. They have been burnt a lot,” she said.
Local benefits from such projects can be both monetary and nonmonetary, including things like requirements for hiring among the local workforce, investments in skills training, environmental remediation and so on, said Saha, who co-wrote a report on the issue in August.
Some communities have even negotiated for a continued share of revenue from projects, said Saha’s colleague Jennifer Chen, a senior clean energy manager. She pointed to an agreement with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians in California, which in 2021 became part owner of an upgraded transmission line carrying renewable energy crossing its lands.
“The bigger idea is that we’d like to get more creative about how we share benefits,” Chen said. Reducing conflicts over the creation of new green-energy infrastructure can benefit everyone, she said.
“If you can take into account siting risks early in the planning phase, you can end up with an outcome that is more fair and likely to face fewer siting risks.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation
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