Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Green Siting for Green Energy

I have been lucky enough to find myself in collaboration with Amy Morris of Aspen Environmental Group. We have been working on three papers about the renewable energy development, specifically the utility-scale solar projects in the California desert. As often seems to happen, our initial paper got too long and cumbersome and we ended up breaking it up. Two of the papers should be out this fall (depending on the pace of the student editors) and the first is available on SSRN in draft form.

This first piece, Green Siting for Green Energy, gives some broad strokes about solar energy siting and some of teh environmental tradeoffs. Particularly interested in the tradeoffs with agricultural lands, we'll have a whole separate paper on that topic some day soon. Hopefully this short piece (presented at George Washington last April) will whet your appetite.

One of the weirdest things about this article for me: we don't once use the phrase conservation easement. Although we do say conservation a lot and easement a few times. Just not together. We do talk about solar use easements though, which are nowhere near almost as exciting.

Amy Morris, Jessica Owley & Emily Capello, Green Siting for Green Energy, 4 J. Energy & Envt’l L. _ (forthcoming 2013).

Renewable energy development is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Solar energy projects can replace polluting fossil fuels, but because they are land-intensive, solar projects also have environmental costs. Large projects have the potential to provide hundreds of megawatts of electricity, but could also disrupt huge expanses of undeveloped land. Arrays of solar panels on commercial rooftops or capped landfills allow beneficial reuse of developed sites, but these projects are typically small-scale (less than 1 MW). This tension between renewable energy development and protection of precious landscapes (particularly desert landscapes) creates a conundrum for environmentalists.

This paper examines the tradeoffs involved in siting solar projects, with a particular focus on California. The unique ecosystems and biodiversity in the California desert have made the tradeoffs between environmental benefits and costs of solar projects especially apparent. We look at the current hurdles for “greener” siting of projects in disturbed and developed areas, including the obstacles to permitting distributed generation (DG) projects, smaller-scale projects that may be built on parking lots or rooftops. While both large and small scale renewables are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there are many opportunities for greener renewable energy siting. Greener siting must proceed on two fronts. First, as large utility-scale solar facilities will be an important component of a sustainable energy future, we need to improve the environmental review and sustainability of those facilities while being wiser about where we locate such projects. Marginal agricultural land and abandoned mine lands can provide untapped opportunities. Second, distributed generation with solar photovoltaics located across the state will be vital. The key to greener siting of DG is fostering the expansion of renewable projects in disturbed areas, particularly contaminated sites and rooftops and parking lots. A challenge of DG is the number of actors, permits, and environmental review process required. Facilitation and coordination of these processes will speed the journey to a solar energy future.

Jessie Owley


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