Depoliticize to decarbonize
Too often in an effort to save Mother Nature, we forget about human nature. Solving problems with rolling out clean renewable energy is less a matter of the physical sciences than the social sciences—overcoming users’ habits and project resistance at the local level
The science community warns that the world is fast approaching a temperature increase threshold of no return—1.5 degrees Celsius, the “aspirational” but necessary ceiling of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Beyond that point, many of the changes we are now seeing—more damaging storms, habitat loss, prolonged droughts in vital agricultural regions, cities flooded by torrential rains and rising oceans, climate-driven migration—continue to increase in severity, scope, and frequency.
To avoid the worst global warming has to offer requires nations to replace fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives like solar and wind at a rate and scale never before attempted in an energy transition. According to the White House, achieving the president’s goal of reaching net-zero for U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and for the rest of the world to follow, will “require a nearly complete transformation of today’s energy system—which relies on fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide in meeting 80 percent of global demand—to one that relies on zero- or negative-emission technologies.” The White House clearly views the situation as an opportunity for America to lead by example, and this article will look at whether that is possible (the answer is a clear yes) and whether it is likely. The answer to that depends on the ability of leaders at all levels to heed human nature.
To start, can the United States replace fossil fuels with wind, solar, and other clean technologies at a pace and scale capable of accomplishing a nearly total metamorphosis of its energy systems—in less than thirty years? That would mean setting a rigorous and stable standard on how to establish and achieve emissions goals and work with all sectors to realize them—a questionable assumption that is at the crux of the issue. That includes industry as well as the population as taxpayers and energy users. And as voters. There are also other stakeholders—including communities affected by new facilities and infrastructure.
Second, is the task technologically realizable? In theory, the United States can reach net-zero by 2050. And in so doing, one of the globe’s leading emitters can serve as both an example for other countries and as a purveyor of world-class, innovative American clean energy technologies. History has shown that the United States almost always accomplishes whatever it sets its collective mind on doing—whether that’s to help win a world war, land astronauts on the Moon, place a powerful folding telescope in space that can see back to the Big Bang, or formulate a vaccine against a heretofore unknown killer virus in less than a year.
On paper, transitioning the nation to a low-carbon economy seems an eminently doable task—when looking at the scale and the available resources. Analysts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have concluded that current clean technologies coupled with a flexible grid could reliably supply, on an hourly basis, 80 percent of 2050 electricity demand.
It is not hard to imagine new technologies will fill the gaps and address other sources of greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. For example, medium-sized geothermal plants can supply low-cost heating and cooling to existing neighborhoods while new construction prioritizes net-zero housing. Skyscrapers with no emissions are already being built. Green hydrogen can free industry from its dependence on fossil fuels and also run fleet vehicles and long-distance trucks.
Having the needed technology means the emphasis of our analysis will now be on widespread deployment. Markets are proving to be accepting of solar and wind power. And momentum for the transition has long been building in the private sector. But corporate America cannot accomplish the transition on its own—the task is too big and requires national coordination and standard-setting, with state and local implementation. Only government at all levels can gather the entire cast of needed players.
There are several relevant trends. For instance, recent commitments by the auto industry show it is willing to manufacture only electric vehicles by the midpoint of the next decade. The White House and Congress are providing stimuli to the carmakers with the recent passage of the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS bill. These measures coupled with pledges from Detroit and the renewables sector are a firm foundation that increases the probability of achieving President Biden’s net-zero goals.
Accomplishing so total a transformation of the economy within the 2050 timeframe is problematic. Standing in the way are practical and political problems that must be resolved. Not the least of these is resistance to large, utility-scale solar and wind projects at the neighborhood level. The community is a critical—if complicated and conflicted—stakeholder that cannot be ignored. A study by Columbia Law School found that “228 local laws, ordinances and policies have been enacted in 35 states to restrict renewable energy.”
Meeting the nation’s power needs with solar, wind, batteries, and other clean options requires installing new wind capacity at six times the rate of 2020. For rooftop and utility-scale photovoltaic installations, the expedited rate is nearly four times that accomplished in 2020. Becoming a renewables economy will change the energy landscape—both figuratively and literally. Solar and wind need up to ten times the land per unit of produced power than fossil and nuclear power plants. Currently, the nation’s energy footprint is 81 million acres of land— about the size of Iowa and Missouri combined. Acreage estimates for renewables vary between the models and depend on the assumptions used to run the programs. NREL researchers estimate that 22,000 square miles of photovoltaic panels would be needed— roughly the size of Lake Michigan. At 20 percent efficiency, a conversion rate thought possible by solar experts, land drops to 10,000 square miles—roughly the size of Lake Erie. According to analysts, up to 250,000,000 more acres of land will be needed for onshore wind farms and 15,000,000 for offshore projects—roughly equivalent to the combined acreage of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Land will also be needed for new transmission lines. Between 1,400 and 10,100 miles of new high-voltage lines will be needed annually by 2035. Rolling out renewables at the above scales means that a lot of communities will be affected; indeed, overcoming resistance at the local level may be the biggest outstanding challenge in achieving net-zero.
The wide range in estimates reflects how much is not yet known about where the new generating facilities will be sited, their distance away from the grid, and where the end users are. Obtaining the needed permits and rights of way add layers of complexity and additional time to the project approval process.
Including nuclear in the mix would both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and land requirements. However, entrenched opposition and strict environmental regulations mean nuclear projects will take much longer to commission and complete than solar and wind. The Energy Information Agency is projecting nuclear will be a declining part of the mix—going from today’s 19 percent to 12 percent in 2050. As time is of the essence, nuclear contributions remain problematic.
There are systemic legal choke points that slow the deployment process—often to a crawl. At the federal level the National Environmental Policy Act requires reviews for any project on federal lands or with federal funding or involvement. NEPA requires an Environmental Assessment when the impact of a project is unclear. An agency may take a year or longer to complete an EA. If the EA concludes that a project needs a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement, then a notice of intent to conduct the study is published. On average, an EIS takes 4.5 years to complete. The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 extending the U.S. debt limit also included provisions designed to streamline the NEPA process. The new law places a one-year limit on the time required to complete an assessment and two years for an impact statement. Other changes should be considered. Would it not be possible to amend NEPA to permit master environmental assessments and studies, leaving decisions on the particulars of any given project subject to staying within broad guidelines? In addition to NEPA states have their own laws governing required environmental impact studies. It is not unusual for a project to be subject to both federal and state laws and even municipal restrictions. A solar farm may be on federal lands, while new transmission lines cross private and state properties—each subject to a different set of evaluation, permitting, and licensing requirements. Clearly, reforms are necessary in the siting process if we are to meet the 2050 goals.
It can be difficult to tell whether a government is being cautious because of the environmental harms involved or to reduce the risk of litigation. Both incur avoidable delays that we need to get serious about reducing. Although substantive assessments and impact statements can provide a defense in case of a lawsuit, they don’t ensure that a legal challenge won’t be levied with its attendant costs and delays. Since lawsuits can be filed by citizens who are affected by a project, litigation is one of the biggest drags on a timely transition to a decarbonized economy.
The NEPA process isn’t the only one that creates project delays. The Clean Air Act and Administrative Procedure Act guarantee citizens an opportunity to comment on proposed rules. Transparency and public input are sound governance practices, but the requirements can put a heavy burden on agencies. Four million comments were submitted to EPA prior to the issuance of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s legacy climate policy that ran afoul of the Supreme Court.
Surely there are ways to shorten the notice-and-comment process that wouldn’t compromise the health and welfare of a community. Or the success of a project. Since the 1980s, scholars have found that the failure to include public input at the earliest possible opportunity complicates and extends the project-approval process—often leading to abandonment of the proposal. A study of 53 utility-scale renewable energy projects that experienced community resistance sought to build on earlier works by answering the question, Why wouldn’t a community want to have a renewable energy power project given the environmental, health, and economic benefits that would likely accrue? The studied projects were located across 28 states. The sources of power included solar, wind, and geothermal. In both their original research and their survey of the literature, the researchers found that individual reasons for resistance can be quite different—even conflicting.
The Susskind, et al. study confirmed earlier findings of researchers like David Bidwell from the University of Chicago and others that the reasons for opposition go deeper than what is generally referred as NIMBYism—Not In My Back Yard. The reasons for resistance varied. They include potential negative impact on property values; the lack of transparency on the part of government siting commissions; a belief that alternatives have not been fully considered; infringement of tribal rights; environmental concerns, e.g., water pollution; conflicts between local, state, and federal governments; aesthetics; and, partisanship.
It’s a mistake to think that because people believe the climate crisis is real and support the transition from fossil fuels that they are guaranteed to welcome a utility-scale wind or solar farm in an otherwise rural setting. Ironically, opposition to a project may be one of the few places climate deniers and environmental defenders are able to find common ground.
In most cases, opposition to a project involves a combination of motivating factors. The proposed Cape Wind Project would have located 130 turbines spaced over almost 25 square miles on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound. The farm would have been the nation’s first offshore wind project and would have supplied power to 200,000 homes on Cape Cod and spurred the building of other farms up and down the East Coast. The reasons for Cape Wind opposition differed. The area’s economy relies heavily on tourism and fishing. It’s also a seasonal home to many wealthy and politically influential families, many of whom opposed the project. Among the challengers was the Wampanoag Tribe, who claimed the project was to be built on sacred ancestral lands. Other objections included environmental concerns involving losses to commercial fishing and property values, regulatory issues, and aesthetic changes to an iconic American seascape.
There are other examples. In 2017, Georgetown University inked an agreement with MD Solar 1 to construct a 100,000-panel, 32-megawatt solar project on a 537-acre tract in Charles County, Maryland, about 30 miles from its campus. The project was part of the university’s overall commitment to reduce its carbon footprint in part by shifting to electricity generated from clean sources. The proposed project would have supplied over half the university’s demand.
To make room for the panels and remove any obstructions to sunlight, the developer planned to clear-cut 210 acres of trees. The proposed chop was opposed by local environmental organizations like the Audubon Naturalist Society (now Nature Forward) and the Southern Maryland Sierra Club. As in the Cape Wind example, concerns varied. The potential negative impact of the lost trees on wildlife and water sources flowing through the property and ultimately into Chesapeake Bay prompted the project’s rejection by Maryland’s environment secretary. Problems included not just the environmental impact but also the lack of public input, and intergovernmental conflicts between the Maryland Public Service Commission and the state’s Department of Environment. The project was cancelled. The university has since entered into a 15-year agreement for the purchase of power from 11 existing solar farms in Maryland and New Jersey.
Pushback on energy projects can take different forms, including legal challenges and political campaigns. A 2021 Ohio law allows county governments to create exclusion zones where no utility-scale solar or wind project can be sited. Thirteen rural counties have availed themselves of the law. An effort by Apex Clean Energy to override the denial of its plan to construct a 300-megawatt project in Crawford County ended up on the November 2022 ballot. The ban was upheld by voters, while the debate leading up to the election was fraught with alternative facts.
One can’t help but wonder if the Cape Wind and Georgetown projects couldn’t have been saved if in responding to community concerns the developers had considered alternatives to the original design. There are multiple ways to hide solar installations using berms and plantings. In the case of Georgetown, perhaps a smaller solar farm would have been more acceptable, making up for the lost panels by using the rooftops of university buildings or partnering with the many big box stores in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.
Opposition to solar projects in semi-rural and rural communities often revolves around the concern that lands used for a solar farm will no longer be used for agriculture. Increasingly, however, developers and farmers are finding ways to produce both power and foods. With the world getting hotter, cash crops like tomatoes are being threatened. A new industry is cropping up in response to such citizen concerns. Under the banner of agrivoltaics, farmers are shading tomato plants under the panels. Developers are meeting the challenge keeping down weeds, grasses, and saplings using goats and sheep to do what they do naturally.
The Cape Wind project failed but it’s not as though all proposed wind projects off the Massachusetts coast have been rejected. Offshore wind projects like the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind have been approved. Vineyard Wind is 15 miles south of where Cape Wind would have been built, and thus further out to sea.
Different sites require different responses and not all responses will clear away the opposition. However, developers need to be willing to engage communities on a basis other than “take it or leave it”—rather, an approach that asks how can a proposed project meet community concerns as well as a developer’s needs. Will flexibility always lead to a successful conclusion? No, but it will certainly increase the rate of acceptance. It doesn’t help any that U.S. climate policy is a hostage of America’s culture wars, in which party affiliation tends to dominate all other issues. As a consequence, rational policy is constantly being buffeted by political winds too often blowing in different directions. Among the first actions of every president beginning with George W. Bush has been to rip up the climate-related executive orders of their predecessors. As with many issues of the day, Democrats and Republicans view the world through much different lenses. Substantial differences are consistently seen in voter surveys. Democrats and independents view climate change as real and place a high priority on combatting it. Republicans tend to believe that the science is unclear and that government proposals will fail if attempted—and that the matter is best left to the private sector.
An inverse relationship exists between the time left to complete the sum of actions to stay on the right side of the temperature threshold and the intensity of effort to slow and ultimately reduce the presence of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Change of the magnitude needed to transition the United States to a low-carbon economy will take time—to draft and finalize new codes and regulations covering nearly every aspect of the built environment and how energy is created and used. So will construction of new power-generating facilities and the build out of the infrastructure needed to connect them to the grid. And as will happen when electrifying the transportation sector.
Passage of the IRA, infrastructure, and CHIPS and Science acts are a credible start to a decade of deployment of proven, cost-competitive solar and wind projects. If implementation of the IRA all goes according to plan, the United States would make significant progress toward the Biden administration’s goal of reducing emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. When was the last time a government policy—especially one with as many moving parts as the IRA and the infrastructure law—was rolled out as envisioned? It’s an immutable law of governance that stuff always happens.
Voter surveys have for years shown a majority of Americans expressing concern for the environment and a belief that climate change is real. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in January 2022 showed that 42 percent of American adults think climate change should be a top priority of Congress. The survey also found that 75 percent place blame for climate change where it belongs, on human activity and burning fossil fuels. A high number (69 percent) of survey respondents also think developing clean energy alternatives is important and that the United States indeed should be carbon neutral by 2050.
The number of Americans who believe climate change is real and clean energy alternatives are an answer has been generally rising for a decade or more. But survey numbers can be misleading. The high percentage of respondents that are understandably concerned about the consequences of climate change is rarely reflected in the top priorities of voters. Maggie Koerth at FiveThirtyEight writes that the “relationship between voters and climate policy has long fallen under the label of ‘it’s complicated.’ There is an established gap between what voters say they want—action on climate change—and what they’re willing to do to achieve that.”
The nation can no longer afford incremental change in its efforts to deploy available clean energy technologies at the pace and scale needed to avoid the worst consequences of Earth’s warming. The sweep of needed changes requires the rarest elements of all these days— trust and confidence in our elected decisionmakers and government bodies. But American’s confidence in its major institutions is at a historic low. Recent Gallup polls show that only 7 percent of those surveyed have much trust in Congress. For the presidency the number is 23 percent, while trust in the Supreme Court to keep politics out of its decisions rests at 25 percent and is going lower. Trust is better at the state and local levels, but only in comparison. A Pew Research Center survey showed trust at 54 and 66 percent respectively.
A lesson of the pandemic was the willingness of many Americans to get their information from political ideologues over the evidence of experts, including government bodies like the Centers for Disease Control. A study by Johns Hopkins University public health experts found that more than demographics, and at least as much as partisan identification, the factor that distinguished doubters from believers was their trust in science. A recent Gallup poll showed only 45 percent of Republicans trust science compared to Democrats and independents at 79 and 65 percent, respectively.
Missing from today’s debate on climate change— including its causes and consequences—is a national, nonpartisan, science-based narrative of the issue. It’s hardly surprising how little agreement there is on possible solutions given how little agreement there is on the nature of the problem.
Throughout the studies on the causes of opposition to utility-scale solar and wind farms is the consistent observation that transparency and early involvement of the public in the siting process can overcome many of the barriers. Other lessons learned from opposition to proposed large renewable energy projects include knowing the alternatives—the criticality of rewarding communities for accepting large-scale projects, for example by offering discounts on local utility bills or investments in community projects.
The timely decarbonization of the U.S. economy requires depoliticizing the climate debate at least to the point where most are singing in the same key. Admittedly, it is difficult to conceive of how that might happen given the levels of mistrust and the amount of misinformation that characterize the current debate. For the answer to that, I turn to the media scholar and visionary Marshall McLuhan, who believed “there is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.” I would add “truthfully” before the word “happening.”
Through whose eyes should what is happening be described? If the message is mistrusted, then perhaps it’s the messengers we should focus on. That medium, as McLuhan would have us say, defines the message and shapes the debate. But the disparity in world views from different media outlets undermines the social consensus needed for McLuhan’s prescription of “willingness” to take hold.
There’s no single solution for speeding up the deployment of clean energy alternatives and the needed infrastructure because there is no single issue preventing their widespread adoption at the pace and scale capable of closing the distance between where we are and where we need to be to stay on the right side of the temperature threshold to avoid the worst consequences of Earth’s warming.
A concurrent approach to streamlining the project approval process up and down the line means attempting to change NEPA and a host of other laws, from the federal to the local levels, including who has standing to sue and on what grounds. Change of this magnitude will be looked at suspiciously. Questions having to do with the willingness to streamline the NEPA process for renewables like solar and wind, but not for fossil fuels, must be addressed and in a nonpartisan manner. If, as a nation, we are not to march backwards into the future, then voters must be given a much clearer understanding, in terms they can relate to, of why the transition to a low-carbon economy is needed and their individual and collective roles in bringing it to fruition. Resistance to solar and wind farms comes about largely because of misinformation and mistrust. Crucial to the successful siting of large-scale wind and solar projects is early engagement with the candidate communities in semi-urban and rural areas unaccustomed to such installations and wary of the reasons they are needed. Siting is not rocket science. But it is a people game. Solving tomorrow’s siting problems is really more a matter for the social sciences than the physical. Developers need to be mindful of the concerns which motivate and frighten people. The earlier problems are identified, the earlier they can be resolved. But flexibility is required.
If a community is concerned that the presence of thousands of unsightly solar panels will compromise the rural nature of the neighborhood, a developer should be willing to employ design features, such as setbacks and plantings, to reduce or solve the problem. If the community views the loss of agricultural lands as a deal breaker, then agrivoltaics may be the solution.
Too often in the effort to save Mother Nature, we forget about human nature. For as long as climate change continues to be a part of today’s culture wars, it will be impossible to deploy clean energy technologies at the scale and pace needed to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. It’s unrealistic to think the transition to a low-carbon economy will happen without stable bipartisan collaboration. The simple truth is that to decarbonize, the nation needs to depoliticize climate change.
This article is also published in The Environmental Law Institute’s periodical The Environmental Forum. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.