Hurdles abound in race to build more clean energy

Executive Editor

As conference attendees were waking up last week for the annual United Nations climate conference underway in Glasgow, Scotland, voters in Maine were rejecting a proposed power line sending Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts.

The two may not seem particularly related, but they are.

Countries are touting their pledges in Glasgow to meet net-zero carbon emissions goals by 2050. But to meet those goals, innumerable local and national decisions must be made that will enable rapidly evolving clean electricity technology to power a net-zero economy.

Maine’s parochial fight over a modest, 150-mile power line project may not seem consequential. On its own, it’s not.

But it’s not just Maine.

It’s Midwestern states who helped torpedo a 700-mile power line that would have sent massive amounts of Oklahoma wind power to the East Coast.

It’s farmers in Australia not wanting a power line traversing their potato fields.

It’s rural residents in New York, Oregon, Ohio, Kentucky, Texas and more who don’t want solar farms around them.

It’s people in Spain and Germany protesting large-scale wind and solar farms.

These are snapshots of a global dilemma.

Data for the U.S. is stark. Less than a quarter of all proposed power-plant projects made it to operation because of transmission challenges, according to a government study earlier this year. The time it takes to get there for those who do is increasing (the success rate is even lower for wind and solar).

Opponents in each of these battles say that any number of unique circumstances make these projects uniquely bad.

In Maine, opponents cited several issues, including an unpopular utility company pushing the project and the route’s proposed pathway through dozens of miles in Maine’s Western forest (much of it is already cleared for the line).

“The urgency of climate change shouldn’t justify bad projects,” said Pete Didisheim, advocacy director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group opposing the powerline. “We completely recognize that a build-out of transmission lines is going to be necessary.”

The thing is: everyone has their own understandable gripes about proposed projects. But if everyone succeeds in rejecting the project they don’t like, we won’t have enough clean electricity to achieve our net-zero goals.

Developers of the Maine project say they will keep fighting in court despite last week’s vote, though the ballot outcome has significantly dimmed its outlook.

In a future where 85% of the world’s total energy mix (not just electricity) comes from renewables (chiefly wind and solar), renewables would need to increase six times over their current amount, according to BloombergNEF.

Even in a future energy system heavily dependent on technologies capturing carbon emissions from coal and natural gas plants, we would still need to triple the current amount of renewable energy.

Heather Zichal, CEO of The American Clean Power Association, a newly formed group comprised of wind producers and other clean energy developers, says companies are already approaching limits of new energy production in some parts of the country because of a dearth of power lines.

Solutions are shaping up to be a mix of better collaboration and more aggressive government action.

Developers, alongside state and local governments, should better incorporate local community input in planning processes, according to pretty much everyone I talked to for this story, including Didisheim in Maine and Andrew Bray, national director at RE-Alliance, an Australia-based environmental nonprofit.

“There has to be a relationship of trust between a company and the landholders involved in the project and with the surrounding communities,” Bray wrote by email.

His organization supports expediting the clean energy transition by facilitating better community engagement with new projects. That includes both effective engagement and tangible benefits, Bray writes: “At the end of the day, the company has to be able to answer the very reasonable question from local communities, ‘what’s in it for us?’ ”

The bipartisan infrastructure bill awaiting President Biden’s signature includes a measure aimed at expediting the review of interstate power lines. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would receive expanded powers in certain situations to issue siting permits if state agencies deny them.

But U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told me in our September interview that a federal agency usurping states’ authorities should be a “last resort.”

Bray said that a similar government tool in Australia—called compulsory acquisition—should only be used as a “last resort.”

Some longtime energy experts say that’s where we’re at.

“Anyone who looks honestly at time frames here should realize we’re already at the last resort,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Grumet, noting his prior work on behalf of Northeastern states, continued: “I can say with absolute confidence if we’re not prepared to pre-empt states, it’s hard to imagine we can create a nationwide, low-carbon infrastructure in the next 20 years.”