If we can’t build things, we can’t tackle climate change: the problem

Executive Editor

Local opposition, convoluted permitting processes and backlogged bureaucracies are hamstringing our attempts to tackle climate change.

Cipher scrutinizes the technological transformations we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Technologies can’t be transformative if we can’t build them at scale. We’ve covered this topic before, but it’s so massive and important that we’re going to keep coming back to it. This article seeks to put the hurdles in context. Next week, we’ll examine potential solutions.

Though this story focuses on the obstacles to a clean energy transition in the United States, other Western democracies from Europe to Australia face similar challenges.

Numerous factors are at play, but let’s boil it down to three big challenges:

  • Community and stakeholder opposition.
  • Long and often outdated permitting processes at the local and federal level.
  • Backlogged submissions from new energy projects connecting to electricity grids.
  • Let’s tackle each in that order, beginning with opposition.

Let’s tackle each in that order, beginning with opposition.

peer-reviewed study published this month in Energy Policy presents a first-of-its-kind review of the scope and reach of opposition—and it’s alarming.

The study analyzed 53 renewable energy and power line projects proposed between 2008 and 2021 in 28 states that were delayed or blocked and found that nearly half were ultimately canceled. Nearly 80% of those projects had more than one source of opposition.

The most significant opposition was about land value and environmental impact, the study found. Tribal concerns about lack of proper consultation also featured prominently.

Although the focus was on opposition, researchers found permitting and regulatory processes were a core hurdle.

“Our analysis raises a fundamental question about whether the regulatory systems in place in the U.S. are suited to reviewing the rapidly growing number of new utility-scale renewable energy projects,” the study concluded.

Proponents and opponents alike of several projects found conflicting state and federal permitting regulations, which end up feeding opposition.

“Overlapping and inconsistent rules and regulations amplify local controversies that emerge for other reasons,” the study states.

The country’s shift to clean energy is also creating an influx of projects seeking permission to connect to the grid, according to a study by the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

This process, called the interconnection queue, has a Rubik’s Cube problem, which is creating yearslong approval delays.

Each time a project applies to connect to the grid, it must conduct studies and cost estimates based partly on existing power plants and those also in the queue.

Those conclusions affect to what degree any given proposal moves forward, so developers often submit several applications to see which version of a given project has the best chance to win approval.

Like scrambling the faces of a Rubik’s Cube, any action on one project in the queue affects the path forward for every other project in line.

Every time applications are submitted, withdrawn or accepted, “that can trigger cascading effects of others in the queue having to do re-studies,” said Joe Rand, an electricity expert at the lab who co-wrote the LBNL study.

The very nature of renewable energy and storage projects—smaller in size and greater in number than coal and natural gas plants—makes this Rubik’s Cube massive.

The interconnection queue process as it exists today was not designed for this volume of new projects we’re seeing. It was designed around centralized, large-scale fossil-fuel projects. Now, we have thousands of projects.
Joe Rand, senior scientific engineering associate, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab

As a result of these challenges, a troubling inverse trend is underway: renewable electricity is growing while the number of power lines constructed to move it around is slowing.

See our double dose of Data Dives below for more.

To be sure, wind and solar electricity are still growing rapidly in the U.S., indicating that despite the challenges many projects are still being built.

But these interconnected problems are poised to grow as the U.S. seeks to further increase the amount of zero-carbon electricity—all while keeping the lights on with aging grid infrastructure (a related, but distinct, challenge).

Measuring the impact of delays and projects not built is an imperfect exercise, but the effect could be significant.

The Energy Policy study determined that the 53 projects blocked or delayed over the last decade amounted to 9,586 megawatts of potential power capacity in the 28 states examined.

That capacity equals about 10% of the renewable electricity those states would need to produce by 2030 via their renewable electricity mandate laws.

Next week, we’ll delve into potential solutions for this triangle of problems—opposition, permitting and grid delays—including recent actions by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Importantly, we’ll need more than renewable energy and power lines to fight climate change.

We’ll also need to scale-up other kinds of cleantech infrastructure, including carbon dioxide pipelines and hydrogen plants.

Wind and solar are the most popular forms of clean energy, and power lines are comparatively minor pieces of infrastructure.

How challenging it is to build the popular and easy stuff does not bode well for the less popular, harder stuff.