Clean energy goals in more than a half-dozen Northeastern states may flounder unless regulators, elected officials and developers do more to mollify political opposition and build rural public support for wind and solar farms, a new analysis has found.
The study, co-authored by a former New York administrative law judge and an energy policy expert, makes clear that more public and private land in the Northeast will have to allocated for utility-scale renewables if states from Connecticut to Maine are going to meet ambitious clean energy targets.
The challenge could be particularly difficult in energy-intensive states like New York, which has a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard requirement for 2030, and Massachusetts, where lawmakers recently proposed to require 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.
While both of those states have announced major initiatives to develop offshore wind farms, which could provide much of the required clean energy, experts say the region needs to make greater use of onshore sites to comply with legislative mandates requiring more clean energy.
“To meet renewable energy and climate change goals, the land-constrained Northeast must cultivate public acceptance of renewable generation siting … on private land or even adjacent public lands,” states the analysis, co-authored by Eleanor Stein and Mike O’Boyle.
Stein, who spent 20 years hearing cases before the New York Public Service Commission and now teaches at Albany Law School, and O’Boyle, a power sector expert at the San Francisco-based nonprofit Energy Innovation, are core contributors to “America’s Power Plan,” a policy and research collaborative aimed at transitioning the United States to a cleaner, more resilient electricity system.
Their analysis builds on earlier research and recommendations addressing the challenge of siting large-scale renewable energy projects within the Eastern Interconnection grid, where much of the land suited for clean energy development is privately held and already dedicated to commercial, residential, agricultural or other uses.
Real estate worries loom
The challenge is especially acute in the Northeast and New England, where land values are higher than the national average, competition between land uses is fierce and property values are strongly tied to nearby development.
Among the types of development likely to draw local attention and opposition are utility-scale wind farms and solar arrays, which require substantial acreage to construct and can significantly alter a community’s look and character.
“In rural districts, there’s a lot of opposition [to energy projects] because people are concerned about the impact on farmland, as well as on real-estate values,” Stein said in a telephone interview.
Local resistance and organized opposition to wind and solar development can substantially delay the siting and permitting of a project, the authors said, in some cases doubling the timeline from an average of four years to eight years, according to data from the New York-based Alliance for Clean Energy.
Take, for example, western New York’s Niagara and Orleans counties, where opponents have slowed proposals to build commercial wind farms near Lake Ontario. Much of the attention has focused on a planned 200-megawatt wind farm proposed by Apex Clean Energy to be built in the rural communities of Somerset and Yates.
Opponents, organized by the nonprofit Save Ontario Shores Inc., have lobbied state and federal lawmakers to block the project, known as Lighthouse Wind, on the grounds that it would permanently alter the area’s rural character and strip land-use decisions from local authorities in favor of state-based priorities set in Albany and New York City.
‘Intractable and savvy opponents’
In a recent letter to New York regulators, Yates town councilman John Riggi implored the PSC to heed the views of local community members, which he described as “clear, ongoing and massive opposition” to the Lighthouse project.
Stein and O’Boyle said such views are widely shared in rural communities across the Northeast, and that elected officials and regulators must work harder to engage communities that are candidates for clean energy development before projects are sited and approved.
“While farming communities are often supportive – appreciating substantial lease fees and tax benefits – second-home owners and others have proven intractable and savvy opponents able to mount political opposition, adding significantly the project costs, causing delays and ultimately stymying many permit approvals,” the report states.
They also said Northeastern states must work independently and regionally to address critical issues around the interconnection and transmission of wind and solar power from generation sites in rural districts to major load centers, many of which are along the Atlantic coast.
As part of that effort, Stein and O’Boyle suggest that states make optimal use of existing energy infrastructure for the siting of new clean energy plants, including abandoned fossil or nuclear power stations and associated transmission infrastructure.
The analysis also advocates for greater use of brownfields and other large tracts that are otherwise deemed undesirable for residential or commercial development. These include undeveloped tracts adjacent to prisons or major highways, and even atop landfills or other contaminated sites. Many such sites have already been identified by U.S. EPA under its “RE-Powering America’s Land” initiative, the authors note.
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