Environmental permitting might block Biden’s clean energy targets

Solar energy

President Joe Biden has been forging ahead with his infrastructure agenda, having released his $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan in March and convening 40 world leaders in April to discuss related climate issues. The president’s infrastructure plan is not timid—especially its energy transition agenda, which calls for our nation’s power generation to be carbon-free by 2035. To understand the magnitude of this transition, it would require replacing 838 gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity, or approximately 80% of the nation’s total.

Two major obstacles stand in the way of the U.S. meeting this 2035 goal: adequate funding and the government’s ability to provide permits necessary to deploy wind and solar generation. The administration attempted to tackle the need for adequate funding head-on by proposing $100 billion in additional federal funding and providing tax and other incentives for renewable power. The permitting challenges, though, remain a key sticking point that need to be addressed.

For those not familiar with project development, any major infrastructure project that is built with federal funds must undergo a host of reviews and authorizations under federal environmental laws—a  process referred to as “permitting.” These laws range from the well-known (the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act) to the esoteric (the Geothermal Steam Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). In addition to federal permitting rules, projects are also subject to various planning requirements, including reviews at the state and local levels.

The permitting process has led to laudable improvements in the quality of our nation’s air and water. However, over time they have also slowed down the deployment of critical infrastructure, including renewable energy projects. For example, the $2.5 billion, 720-mile Clean Line Energy project—which was slated to carry wind power from the Great Plains to the Southeast—has faced years of legal and permitting hurdles. Major projects (such as those on the scale President Biden is advocating) must produce environmental impact statements, which can take four years on average, and in some cases as long as decades.

Complicating permitting challenges are the large swaths of land required for the deployment of renewables. The land area required for 1 GW of generation capacity is estimated to range between 2 and 100 square miles for wind and between 13.5 and 15.6 square miles for photovoltaic solar, according to two quite divergent estimates among researchers. Using the smaller estimates produced by renewable energy advocates (2 square miles for wind and 13.5 square miles for solar) and assuming a wind-heavy (less land-intensive) energy mix of 75% wind and 25% solar, the land required to replace today’s 838 GW of nonrenewable capacity would be 4,084 square miles. This is equivalent to 1.6 times the size of Delaware or roughly 125 times the pavement area of the original 41,000-mile Interstate Highway System. An alternative study by Bloomberg and Princeton University estimated the land requirements to be the size of South Dakota.

To put it bluntly, whether the land required would be equivalent to a couple Delawares or a South Dakota, permitting projects of this magnitude by 2035 will be highly improbable if hundreds of massive projects have to plod through the current permitting system.

Permitting represents a barrier to deploying renewable energy even at the smaller scales we’ve already attempted. In 2020, for example, developers cited permitting as a factor in the delay of several offshore wind projects totaling nearly 3 GW in capacity. And earlier this year, the Biden administration cancelled two offshore wind development zones off the East Coast following concerns about maritime traffic and community opposition.

The U.S. renewable sector is not alone in this challenge. European green energy companies have also stressed that permitting will hamper their ability to meet energy goals unless the process is significantly streamlined.

As the nation fundamentally rethinks the nature of infrastructure and its role in the country’s future, we need to address how to help projects navigate the slew of environmental regulations that could stall the deployment of next-generation infrastructure. The relevant statues have been largely unamended since the 1970s, and simply don’t reflect the needs and challenges of today. Calls for a once-in-a-generation change to America’s energy infrastructure should include similar calls to modernize the way these projects are permitted.

The Biden administration has taken some initial steps to address this challenge, but it will need to propose legislative language to clarify agency responsibilities and provide strong leadership from the White House (in the form of an executive order) if it hopes to deploy renewable projects at the scale required to meet the 2035 deadline.