Tuesday, July 23, 2013
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).
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.
I am not sure how many of you are readers of High Country News, but it is of course the go to source for news about the West (especially if you are interested in land use, conservation, or rural peoples). I get it in hard copy because even though you can get it electronically, it is hard to beat seeing their large format magazine with awesome images. An article by Ray Ring from the June 10th issue caught my eye and I thought might be interesting to some of you.
In Paradise at a Price, Ring examines how conservation goals collide with affordable housing. He uses Jackson, Wyoming to tell his tale but it is a story we have seen in many towns. Jackson has some special challenges because of its high percentage of publicly owned land, but we see similar patterns in several resort communities. The story is a simple one. Beautiful areas attract people. Beautiful areas with recreation opportunities in particular end up with communties dominated by fancy vacation homes and amenities for tourists. Real estate prices are high. But all those tourists and Californians with second homes still need goods and services. The problem is that employees of the stores, the ski resorts, the hotels, and the grocery stores can't afford to live in Jackson. This means we need afforable housing projects. Unfortunately, in areas like Jackson the affordable housing projects compete not only with other private residential development but also with conservation efforts.
This article was not about conservation easements, but its description of conservation easements in Jackson illuminated two somewhat conflicting concerns with conservation easements. I'll give you the facts and then explain my concerns.
- More than 97% of Teton County's land is public (owned by federal, state, or local government)
- This leaves only 78,000 acres of private land for development
- Much of this private land is covered by vacation homes for the wealthy
- 1964 local planning laws established overlay districts, protecting wildlife habitat and scenic views. This restricts development on 48,000 acres (leaving only 30,000 unrestricted acres).
- Conservation easements prevent development on 22,000 acres. Most (but not all) of the conservation easements are within the overlay districts
- 20,000 acres are too steep to build on (I think this may leave 10,000 unrestricted developable acres but I am not exactly sure what category these 20,000 acres fall into)
- Restrictions throughout the county limit things like building height (usually nothing over 2 stores) and include specific rules limiting construction near things like spawning areas and swan nests
Okay, so now my concerns. Note, there are many concerns here about affordable housing which are obviously just from looking at the facts above and are well explained in Ring's article, so let me just look to the conservation easement issue.
- Conservation easements are part of the problem on the affordable housing front. The restrictions on development puts up obstacles for people trying to build needed housing. Depending on your goals, you may be okay with that outcome but most of these conservation easements are ways for wealthy people to protect their views and open space (often with receiving attractive tax breaks). I know protecting these beautiful areas is important, but when we let private individuals make all the decisions about what to protect ... it makes me nervous.
- Conservation easements may not get you a lot of bang for your buck. The article states that most of the conservation easements in the community are in areas already protected by overlay districts. This makes me really curious about what type of compensation or development permit the landowners got in exchange for the conservation easements. What are they worth if land use was restricted without them. Admittedly, the conservation easements may have additional restrictions and will remain even if the County changes the contours and rules for the overlay districts. I don't have information about these individual conservation easements, and I am sure the Jackson Hole Land Trust would be pissed at perturbed by my claims but I have seen several examples from conservation easements I have dealt with directly where the landowner receives a large benefit for agreeing not to do something she never intended to do.
Just some food for thought