Energy policy recommendations from environmental groups

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As energy in the U.S. makes its broad transition towards solar and other renewables, permit reform has taken center stage in political arenas as an issue to tackle to more rapidly deploy clean energy capacity.  

However, environmental groups say that both Congress and the Biden Administration are failing to execute permit reform plans that integrate justice, equity, and environmental common-sense practices. 

A group of environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter to U.S. political leaders and released an accompanying report of their vision of more beneficial permit reform legislation. 

The groups argue that Senator Joe Manchin’s permit reform proposal, which has gained steam amongst his colleagues, undermines the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Clean Water Act by fast-tracking fossil fuel development. A letter signed by over 750 organizations was released in opposition to his proposal. 

The policy report first recommends Congress pursue a just renewable energy system through what they describe as commonsense solutions. The core of this recommendation is supporting a buildout of energy efficiency and local, small-scale, distributed energy. 

“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 report. 

Image: Center for Biological Diversity

The groups recommend policy that prioritizes energy conservation technologies, distributed energy resources (DERs), and larger-scale renewables on parking lots, canals, rights-of-way, and degraded lands that have ready access to existing transmission lines and don’t harm communities or wildlife.

(Read: “Three ways to implement solar and renewables to reduce land use“)

Energy efficiency and conservation is the first logical step in the report’s recommendations. Deployment of energy efficiency and conservation technologies could reduce annual electricity use by 26% in 2030, according to a report published in Science Direct. Efforts should include weatherization like insulation, basic electrification like heat pumps and electric or induction stoves, and demand response technologies like smart equipment, sensors, and controls. 

“At the same time, wasteful energy-guzzlers like crypto-mining should be restricted and regulated. Bitcoin crypto-asset mining facilities use up to 1.4% of domestic electricity—the same as the electricity needed to light every home in the country,” said the report. 

The report directly recommends that Congress direct Inflation Reduction Act funds to energy efficiency, while regulating energy-intensive cryptocurrency operations and cutting national defense spending to open more funding for equitable clean energy buildout. 

Another chief recommendation is the prioritization of distributed energy resources. DERs are proven to offer co-benefits over their utility-scale counterparts, including greater affordability; greater resilience in extreme weather events, power outages and disasters; local economic benefits of jobs; avoided wildlife impacts with larger scale clean energy projects and transmission. DERs also limit power losses in line transmission, as 5% to 20% of energy is lost in transmission alone. 

The groups recommend that Congress support the buildout of distributed energy resources on all private and public rooftops and parking lots, prioritizing service to disadvantaged communities. They also recommend Congress to create financing avenues for non-federal public entities to adopt solar.

Image: Center for Biological Diversity

Congress can maximize responsible siting of large-scale renewable energy infrastructure on canals, degraded lands, and nonresidential highway corridors, said the report. A study concluded that if every canal in California was covered by solar panels, that would add approximately 13 GW of capacity, enough to power nearly 10 million homes. This effort would simultaneously reduce water loss by 63 billion gallons of water per year due to evaporation, and reduce aquatic weed growth, reducing the need for pesticides.

Third, the groups recommend that Congress fulfill the remaining energy demand not met by distributed resources with responsibly-sited projects.

The report said passing the A. Donald McEachin Environmental Justice for All Act would help in this effort. The Act restructures current permitting processes so that cumulative impacts are considered properly and consistently as new infrastructure develops in environmental justice communities. The bill also directs federal agencies to seek Tribal government input in the NEPA process, and to ensure that Indian Tribes are invited to hold the status of a cooperating agency for proposed actions that might impact their reservation lands and sacred sites. 

The report also suggests that Congress forms a master energy planning agency that oversees a more just energy transition and overcomes barriers to inefficient energy systems.

Fourth, the groups recommend eliminating energy technologies that are deemed “distractions” from effective decarbonization efforts.

“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. 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,” said the report.

The report, which can be read in full here, continues with recommendations for equitable permitting guidelines, reform to interconnection processes, and the enactment of a state of emergency for climate change.

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