Building clean energy projects in the U.S. at the speed and scale needed to adequately address the climate crisis requires strategic reforms that improve the way such projects are sited and permitted at the federal, state and local levels, said a press release from the Biden-Harris Administration.
The administration released its objectives for permit reform, a hot issue working its way through the energy transition discussion. To accelerate the federal permitting process, the administration is establishing a new interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate the timely, responsible, and equitable permitting of electric transmission infrastructure.
The White House press release said the Administration is in support of reforms contained within Senator Joe Manchin’s Building American Energy Security Act, as a “bipartisan compromise.”
“The reliability, economic, and environmental benefits of expanding our transmission system are well documented, but the means to permit, plan, and pay for these facilities unfortunately lag far behind. We cannot afford for this to be the case any longer – the expansion and modernization of our national power grid is central to meeting our urgent climate and energy security goals. The steps the Biden administration took this week will unlock new financing and regulatory tools, improve coordination among federal agencies and transmission developers, establish clear milestones and deadlines for decisions, and provide early and meaningful consultation with impacted communities and key constituents. These helpful actions demonstrate a commitment to building out the electric grid we need to realize America’s clean energy future. We urge Congress to build upon this important progress by passing meaningful, bipartisan permitting reform legislation.” Gregory Wetstone, president and chief technology officer, American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE)
However, environmental groups have argued the legislation ignores critical technologies that support energy efficiency and local, small-scale, and responsibly sited renewable energy projects.
“Most of Congress’ ‘permitting reform’ proposals assume that utility-scale renewable energy that relies on large-scale transmission build-out on public lands, regardless of responsible siting and community and environmental impact, is the silver bullet to decarbonization—an assumption that should be intellectually interrogated instead of being willfully accepted,” said the Center for Biological Diversity.
Recommendations to Congress
The administration suggested that Congress should expedite connection of interstate and offshore electric transmission lines by providing for electric transmission siting and cost allocation. It also directed Congress to reform the transmission interconnection queue so that new generation projects are not stuck in line waiting for approval for over four years.
Furthermore, the Administration said regional electricity transfer requirements should be established to avoid events like the 2021 Texas freeze, which became a humanitarian and economic crisis. Notably, communities that had local solar generation paired with energy storage were able to keep power on and avoid the worst effects of the Texas winter storm Uri, which took the lives of hundreds of Texans.
The administration also asks Congress to boost transmission financing by clarifying that the Secretary of Energy is able to to make loans for transmission outside of designated transmission corridors, if it is deemed to be in the national interest.
The Energy Act of 2020 directed the Department of the Interior to permit 25 GW of renewable energy on departmentally managed lands by 2025. The nation is already on track to surpass this goal. It recommended that Congress should update goals for 2030 and 2035 to facilitate ongoing identification of zones for the development of renewable energy and for the siting of necessary transmission to attach that generation to the grid.
The Biden-Harris administration also made recommendations to ease permits for critical minerals mining and support deployment of hydrogen and carbon dioxide infrastructure. While carbon capture technologies reduce emissions of fossil fuels, environmentalists argue that these technologies perpetuate technologies that are more costly and less carbon-efficient than renewables like solar.
“Dangerous distractions–including carbon capture and sequestration, direct air capture, enhanced oil recovery, dirty hydrogen, so-called ‘advanced’ or ‘chemical recycling’ processes for plastics, and other technologies that perpetuate fossil fuels–and biomass and factory farm biogas, must be banned from coming online,” said the Center for Biological Diversity. “Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels, and public funds should not be used to prop up oil and gas companies’ efforts to extend the demand for fossil fuels and existing infrastructure for as long as possible.”
The administration made several direct recommendations for the reform of permits in pursuit of “prompt and legally defensible decisions.” It recommends the creation of a programmatic review fund to execute more reviews rapidly. It supports long-term programmatic reviews that may be relied upon for five years, unless there are new circumstances.
“Congress should require Federal agencies to examine and propose the use of categorical exclusions for clean energy projects where feasible,” said the White House release.
Federal agencies often use “antiquated” reporting systems, and the administration recommends that Congress makes resources available to develop an automated, joint electronic permit application for agencies. It requests creating maps for project development locations, establishing clear information submission deadlines, and the development of automated workflow tools compatible with existing federal agency reporting dashboards, and creating a permitting technology steering group.
The White House recommendations, which can be read in full here, continue with recommendations for cutting duplicative analyses, improving community engagement, addressing gaps in the permitting workforce, establishing clearer requirements for mitigating environmental harms, and incentivizing state and local permit reform and standardization.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has begun work on some of the objectives the White House has laid out. The Grid Deployment Office issued a Notice of Intent and Request for Information (RFI) to inform the designation of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors (NIETCs). NIETCs are geographic areas where electricity limitations, congestion, or capacity constraints are adversely affecting electricity consumers and communities.
“Designation of a NIETC unlocks critical federal investment and regulatory and permitting tools to spur urgent transmission investments needed in these geographic areas to improve reliability and resilience and reduce consumer costs,” said DOE.
The RFI seeks stakeholder feedback to improve the NIETC designation process to more accurately pinpoint areas experiencing the greatest transmission need and with the greatest potential for immediate transmission deployment.
“A reliable and resilient electric transmission system is essential to the Nation’s economic, energy, and national security,” said Maria Robinson, director, Grid Deployment Office. “We must improve and expand national transmission capacity to meet the challenges of more frequent and intense weather, provide access to diverse sources of clean electricity, and fulfill electricity demands driven by increased electrification of homes, businesses, and vehicles.”
A NIETC designation can unlock Federal financing tools, specifically public-private partnerships through the $2.5 billion Transmission Facilitation Program under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the $2 billion Transmission Facility Financing Loan Program under the Inflation Reduction Act, said DOE.
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