Where wind and solar power need to grow for America to meet its goals
By Veronica Penney
President Joe Biden has promised to sharply reduce America’s planet-warming carbon emissions, which means changes to the country’s energy system may reshape landscapes and coastlines around the country.
The United States is now aiming to bring emissions down to net-zero by 2050, meaning the country would eliminate as much greenhouse gas as it emits. To reach that goal, Americans will need to get a lot more of their energy from renewable sources like wind and solar farms.
One of the most recent studies on the subject, Princeton University’s Net-Zero America Report, charted five pathways to net-zero, and all of them required the United States to exceed the current pace of building for solar panels and wind turbines.
But what will all that energy infrastructure look like, and where could it go? Here’s a look at the factors and forces that will determine where renewable energy projects are built.
Traditionally, the location of high-voltage transmission lines largely determines where new power projects are built, because transmission lines that can carry power between states and regions are expensive. So, does the United States have the lines to move power from solar farms in the sunny deserts of the southwest to big cities in other parts of the country?
In a word: No.
Power lines are a big question mark in other parts of the country, too. In remote portions of Montana and Wyoming, wind speeds may be ideal for energy projects but the terrain is too rugged to build transmission lines to the cities and towns that need electricity.
Plus, approval to build new transmission lines currently needs to be granted state by state, parcel by parcel. To show how complicated that could be, Cheryl LaFleur, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, cited the example of President Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate highway project.
“Imagine if he didn’t have any authority to site the Interstate highways and he said, ‘We’d like to have some interstate highways, why don’t all you states go out and plan them?’” LaFleur said.
That’s why, according to many planners, the best option is to build energy sources close to population centers. They say the United States will still need to expand its network of high-voltage transmission lines, but minimizing that expansion will be the simplest path forward.
“The cost of solar is so low these days that it really makes sense to install it close to where the demand is, rather than incur large transmission costs to deliver it from somewhere else,” said Emily Leslie, a principal at the energy consulting firm Energy Reflections who contributed to Princeton’s Net-Zero America Report.
Renewable energy projects can offer a lifeline for struggling farmers, generating as much as ten or twenty times the revenue per acre as planting fields. But neighbors sometimes voice strong opposition to new projects.
“You live in different places for different reasons and some people live in places for the view,” said Sarah Mills, a senior project manager at the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan who researches farmland preservation. “Wind turbines change the view. For solar, if it’s right next to your house and it’s a couple miles of solar, it changes your view.”
In Wyoming, for example, local officials have been intrigued by the prospect of jobs and tax revenues from proposed wind projects. At the same time, they are reluctant to interrupt the wild vistas cherished by the people who live there. “It scared us,” said one county official in the state. “There were 50-some wind projects coming at us, and that would destroy our way of life.”
In other states, some local and state governments are planning legislation, including a proposed bill in Ohio, that restricts where renewable energy projects can be built.
Getting the permits
Many of the places with the best sun and wind resources in the United States are on public land in the southwest and along the Rocky Mountains, so some energy will still need to come from remote areas in the West.
Getting approval to build on federal or state land can be a much longer process than what’s required for private land.
The Interior Department currently has a goal of approving permits for 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on federal land by 2025, but some of the Princeton models propose nearly five times that amount on public land in the coming decades.
How much energy is allowed on public land, and where projects are built, will depend on how the Biden Administration updates the solar and wind energy plans developed during the Obama administration. Those projects allow fast-tracked permitting for renewable projects on certain parcels of federal land for projects.
The existing plans, nearly a decade old, will need to be updated to account for advances in solar and wind technology that allow projects to be built on steeper terrain or to have less of an environmental impact.
The question of whether to strictly conserve land for environmental purposes or make exceptions for clean energy is a thorny one.
Some species, like the desert tortoise and sage grouse, are being pushed to the brink of extinction by global warming and development, including oil and gas extraction, in their habitats. Without careful planning, adding vast solar panel arrays or hundreds of wind turbines where they live could push them over the edge. But so, too, could the continued burning of fossil fuels and rising global temperatures.
Renewable energy developers are required to conduct environmental impact studies and can sometimes offset the harm from new projects. A developer hoping to build wind turbines, for example, could pay to retrofit older, existing transmission lines in the area to make them safer for birds, balancing the toll on the species.
Projects can also be built on degraded or recovering land, rather than undeveloped landscapes. However, “a lot of abandoned agriculture’s important habitat also,” said Dustin Mulvaney, a professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University. The Swainson’s hawk, for instance, which travels between the United States and South America each year, relies on abandoned farmland in California to forage for food.
“Habitat quality and connectivity and things like that are also important for where these projects go,” Mulvaney said.
Better technology could mean that future wind farms will generate more power with fewer turbines, or that more efficient solar panels could further reduce the land-use footprint of solar power projects.
But even without big advances, LaFleur said, the United States now has the technology and resources to reach net-zero emissions. And, she noted, it has the public will.
“We’re in a system where, fortunately, a lot of the people want to address climate change,” LaFleur said.
“We have a lot of benefits in the United States,” she added, even though “we have a complicated system to get there.”