Regulatory and practical keys to achieve a solar future

The sun sets past the solar panels of a power station in Amareleja, southern Portugal, April 23, 2008. REUTERS / Jose Manuel Ribeiro / File Photo

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October 11, 2021 – The Biden administration sets ambitious renewable energy goals and paves the way for a future of clean power generation. To fully harness the potential of the large amounts of renewable energy production that are required, regulators and policy makers must ensure that solar and wind projects can be licensed, that installed capacity reaches markets, and that facilities can be recharged or decommissioned in an environmentally friendly manner. .

Earlier this month, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) released its Solar Futures Study (“Study”) to light the way to a zero-carbon power grid. Key lessons from the study show that achieving a zero-carbon grid by 2050 will require US utilities and solar developers to quadruple the installation of annual solar capacity to reach 1,000 GW of installed capacity from by 2035 and up to 3,000 GW by 2050.

The expected benefits of such a construction are obvious: jobs and decarbonisation. Just like the challenges: significant use of land, choice of sites and permits, environmental impacts and development of transport.

Deploying solar energy to the extent suggested in the study requires a “holistic economic” approach that would test the ingenuity of researchers, builders, CEOs, raw material suppliers, manufacturers, project developers, regulators and policy makers. Indeed, the power grid’s transition from a system designed for baseload generation to one that seamlessly integrates intermittent renewables and battery storage technology will be a feat of engineering as inspiring as its creation.

One of the main challenges with solar integration suggested by the study is the fact that federal licensing regimes have created extraordinarily long project development times since the 1970s. Allow reforms that could benefit solar projects. Renewable energy is partly in the hands of federal executives, but licensing solar projects may get more complicated before it gets easier.

For example, the unified spring 2021 program of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs shows that federal agencies are reviewing regulations such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, among others. Targeted regulatory actions focus more on compensatory mitigation measures, conservation banks, sage grouse planning, and listing of Lesser Prairie chicken. All indications suggest that these actions will increase the regulatory burden on solar and wind developers, which will also make it difficult to invest in large solar installations.

While regulatory compliance under changing rules is time consuming and expensive, each of these regulatory actions plays a critical role in protecting human health, the survival of species and the environment. As a result, federal agencies face the challenge of producing reforms that will protect the environment and do not further encumber the five to seven year timeframe required to plan, license and build large solar projects.

According to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, licensing large solar projects takes nearly two and a half years, and licensing power transmission lines takes nearly three and a half years. Unless federal agencies can increase their coordination to quickly analyze the impacts of projects proposed under the Alphabet Soup of Federal Standards, the United States will not begin to realize the benefits anticipated by the study until. 2028 at the earliest. If agencies are unable to meet this challenge, it may fall to Congress to modernize federal permits to protect the environment and effectively enable new projects.

Another challenge for achieving the future described by the study is to get installed renewable energy to local markets. Clearly America does not have sufficient transmission capacity to bring 3000 GW of solar power to market. This obstacle involves licensing and siting challenges as well as state and local reactions to the proposed transmission infrastructure, which can often cause significant delays for large-scale projects needed to integrate renewable energy.

Earlier this year, Grid Strategies LLC identified 22 transmission lines ready for construction, representing $ 33.278 billion in investments that face serious challenges to complete. TransWest Express, NE Clean Energy Connect, Cardinal-Hickory Creek and Grain Belt Express are examples of projects that would bring renewable energy to market, but have met overwhelming opposition. An interesting common thread that unifies groups opposed to transmission lines is that they generally favor renewable energies but are opposed to projects in their local communities.

Unlike potential solutions to federal permit problems, responding to local opposition to power transmission infrastructure is much more complicated. Promoters of solar, wind and transmission projects have often struggled to gain buy-in from local stakeholders for the project, similar to what their peers in the extractive industries have long faced. Increasingly, the development of transportation projects has become a high-stakes battle fought before judges and the public. While effective stakeholder engagement and outreach is certainly part of the solution to these issues, the fact that 22 ready-to-go renewable energy transmission lines offered by sophisticated entities continue to experience delays is testament to of a larger problem.

Finally, the development of many new renewable energy production projects will lead to the repowering or dismantling of older production facilities that have reached the end of their useful life or whose land they occupy can be used for more. advantageously by more recent production projects. Policies and planning regarding the refueling or decommissioning of renewable energy facilities have received little attention in recent years. The context surrounding legacy renewable energy facilities is critical to understanding why recharge and decommissioning will become an urgent issue in the years to come.

America’s first large-scale solar installation to eclipse 1 MW was built near Hesperia, California, in 1982. Over the past 40 years, the United States has aggressively researched, invested, and installed renewable capacity. where the United States now has 102.8 GW of installed solar capacity, representing over 550,000 acres of development. The NREL study proposes 1,000 GW of installed capacity by 2035 and 3,000 GW by 2050, approximately 10 and 30 times what is currently installed, respectively.

An additional statistic to consider is that the average solar installation has an effective lifespan of 20 to 30 years. At some point, the 550,000 acres of currently installed capacity and the 1,645,393 acres of capacity envisioned in 2050 must be decommissioned and / or replenished, raising the question of what to do with all the expired solar panels. Like coal, gas or nuclear power plants, renewable installations must be decommissioned and / or re-equipped with new, more efficient equipment.

Solar and wind power installations provide many benefits for the environment, but they also contain materials that are toxic, do not decompose, or are not recyclable. On the other hand, solar panels and wind turbines contain rare and critical earth minerals which, if recovered, represent potential sources of income for developers and utilities and make renewable energy renewable in several ways. , which makes the results of the study even more technically feasible.

Many developers, utilities, research groups, and universities are looking to solve these dismantling problems through materials science, land use, recycling solutions, and more. State legislatures are also beginning to impose decommissioning and bonding requirements on existing renewable installations to ensure that future solar installations are decommissioned or recharged. As some entities move forward, solutions are still maturing and the potential to have outcomes dictated to developers and utilities by regulators is very real, which also complicates the study’s projected solar future.

Solving the complexities associated with licensing, bringing renewables to market, and planning for recharging and decommissioning solar installations must each occur to fully realize all of the benefits associated with the solar future. planned by the study.

The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the principles of trust, is committed to respecting integrity, independence and freedom from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

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