The great US power struggle

An aerial view of the wind turbine farm in Nevada, USA (Adobe Stock/Wirestock)

Build-out of renewable energy projects in the US is being stymied by regulations and local opposition, reports P. Barton DeLacy.

The continental United States has seen remarkable progress in the development and deployment of utility-scale wind and solar-powered projects over the past decade. Typically referred to as ‘farms’ because of their rural locations on agricultural sites, renewables may be reaching a point of diminishing returns without better energy storage and electricity transmission facilities.

Often impeded by environmental disputes, there are four areas where US policymakers must work cooperatively with the renewables industry to achieve ambitious climate change goals:

  • Overcome entitlement hurdles such as land use constraints and environmental impact studies.
  • Expand and improve the connectivity of regional power grids.
  • Improve process for linking offshore wind to land-based infrastructure.
  • Accelerate development of Battery Energy Storage Systems.

In the US, the so-called rust belt states of the Midwest and Eastern Seaboard have languished for decades with population declines and loss of base industries. This region is also most dependent on carbon-based fuels such as coal and natural gas for electric power generation. The challenge is to bring renewable power generated from the resource-rich Great Plains and Texas to the hungry loads east of the Mississippi.

US power grid remains a patchwork

Unfortunately, the power grid of interstate transmission lines remains regionalised in a quasi-regulated federal system that lacks the seamless fluidity of, say, the US Interstate Highway system. Efforts to nationalise the grid or at least connect wind energy generated from the sparsely populated interior to the densely settled East Coast have been effectively blocked by some state-owned utilities.

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New transmission lines require acquisition of broad swaths of land over which overhead high-voltage lines would traverse. Regulated though investor-owned utilities may invoke ‘eminent domain’, the legal process for acquiring land for the public good. Land owners must be paid just compensation for such ‘rights of way’ in a process similar to how local governments encumber land for roads and municipal utility lines.

Meanwhile, power-hungry states like California and Texas have developed queues that slow bringing new renewable energy projects on line or hinder moving power across vast geographies.

Unintended consequences of environmental constraints and land use planning

At the same time, population growth has been blamed for loss of farmland and compromised habitats. Fears of urban sprawl have spawned urban growth  boundaries and encouraged lengthy siting processes for large power-generating projects like wind farms.

Large-scale wind or solar farms were never envisioned  when most land use plans or zoning regulations were crafted in the mid-late 20th century.  Thus, siting of new power plants, regardless of how powered, is considered a special use exception entailing broad notice to both neighbours and environmental watchdogs.

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are complex multiple discipline exercises that encompass natural resources including all manner of flora and fauna, not to mention water and air quality, to identify sensitive areas which a given project may affect. Data gathering alone may take months and paths to mitigation may not be clear. One smaller wind project in Vermont was held up so long the technology had changed so that a marginally larger wind turbine was specified, this triggered a new EIS study adding more years to a project that was already a decade into planning. 

‘One smaller wind project in Vermont was held up so long the technology had changed so that a marginally larger wind turbine was specified, this triggered a new EIS study adding more years to a project.’

P. Barton DeLacy, Cushman & Wakefield

Thus, politicised land use planning coupled with complex environmental regulations have slowed, if not delayed, the implementation of carbon-free energy production across much of the US. Ironically, some of the very environmental constraints which have blocked expansion of thermal power have severely slowed the necessary conversion to renewables.

Having successfully blocked the extension of natural gas pipelines across their sovereign lands, native American tribes on large reservations across the Great Plains have turned to renewables as a more compatible land use. But while both the wind and solar resources rank as some of the strongest in the nation, development has been stalled by the land ownership patterns on the reservations.

Assembling and leasing sufficient land to support utility-scale energy production is complicated by tribal politics and the red tape of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that hold much of the land in trust. The first on-reservation wind projects, some of which could replace retiring coal plants, are years away from being realised.

Landing cables: the predicament stalling offshore wind

The US lags Europe and the UK in the development of offshore wind capacity. To date only a single experimental offshore (six turbines at Block Island) wind project has been completed off the Eastern Seaboard state of Rhode Island (south of Massachusetts and north of New York’s Long Island). Cape Wind, what would have been America’s first offshore wind project in Nantucket Sound, was effectively cancelled due to political opposition from the elite of Martha’s Vineyard (among others) who objected to a blighted view. Local native American tribes also filed a suit to stop the project.

Today long-term leases have been signed for use of Federal waters in the Atlantic for the 120MW Skipjack wind farm off the coast of Delaware. Yet notwithstanding the securing of most permits and the sale of electricity to the local utility, the difficulty has been finding a suitable land spot for the cables needed to connect with onshore substations. The cables must come onshore in the vicinity of beach resorts and state parks – again, meeting high-cost, state park bureaucracies and potential local opposition.

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) to the rescue

Still an evolving technology, the storing of intermittently generated wind or solar power is key to building a reliable system to replace on-demand carbon-based thermal sources. The technology of energy storage is proceeding on two tracks: longer-lasting units for electric vehicles and utility-scale projects where massive arrays of cabinets located at or near substations and transmission corridors.

In California two former coastal tank farm sites that once served oil-fired power plants have been replaced with BESS projects. However, this technology has not been error-free, a fire at Moss Landing on Monterrey Bay has shut that facility down.

Several states have passed legislation effectively cancelling electric power generation from thermal sources within prescribed deadlines. Such prescriptions presume a future where power is exclusively generated from renewable sources. Given the unintended regulatory delays that environmental rules compel, perhaps thoughtful balancing of such rules and their consequences will better ensure the sustainable future we all seek.

P. Barton DeLacy is executive director, valuation & advisory at Cushman & Wakefield