April 23, 2017

How to Site Wind, Solar and Transmission Projects in the Land-constrained Northeast US

The Trump Administration’s pro-fossil, anti-climate agenda means states must lead renewable energy development in the near term, but will barriers to siting solar and wind in land-constrained regions impede growth?

Large-scale renewables are key to decarbonization, but siting projects is tricky even in leader states. For instance, New York and Massachusetts have ambitious renewables targets, but many potential locations for solar and wind in each are on private or preserved land — so where can developers build the generation required for clean energy goals?

New research, Siting Renewable Generation: The Northeast Perspective, seeks to solve the challenge of siting renewable energy and connecting it to the grid. Eleanor Stein, a former New York Public Service Commission (NY PSC) Administrative Law Judge and NY-REV Project Manager, led the effort for America’s Power Plan (APP).

Ambitious Renewable Goals Across the Most Constrained Lands

Seven northeastern U.S. states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) maintain emissions reduction goals and renewable energy standards which would increase regional renewables supply (mostly wind and solar) to at least 42 percent by 2030. This would more than double 2015’s 20 percent installed generation capacity, but requires major capacity additions within a short period without identifying ideal project sites.

For example, the NY PSC estimated achieving New York’s 50 percent by 2030 renewable generation goal would necessitate 3,500 MW of onshore wind and 6,800 MW of utility-scale solar — requiring approximately 700 square kilometers (km) for wind turbines and 136 square km for solar arrays, using NREL land-use estimates.

“We all live in a land-constrained environment — as the old joke goes, they’re just not making any more land,” said Stein. “But the Northeast lacks the vast tracts of federal land that characterize the West, where nearly half the land is federally owned.”

New York’s 50 by ’30 goal depends on timely regulatory approvals and private landowners willing to host projects, but a history of siting renewables daunts investors. According to the Alliance for Clean Energy-New York, four years is the best-case scenario for new wind farm construction, but obtaining permits can require up to eight years.

Regional Coordination May Be Key to Success

The aggressive renewable energy goals in the Northeast U.S. require substantial land areas for wind and solar in rural regions as well as meaningful offshore wind and solar near urban areas. In this context, regional planning and coordination can balance demand with siting.

“The Northeast should consider a regional mapping exercise to identify lowest-conflict areas for renewable development and transmission, which has been effective in the West,” said Stein, noting potential applications of the Energy Zone Mapping Tool. This collaboration of DOE’s national labs identifies areas suitable for renewable power in a searchable GIS format, including topography, proximity to water, nearest population centers, and environmental conflict areas.

The Challenge Facing Onshore Wind

Local landowner concerns are increasingly relevant to wind farm proposals across the Northeast. While farming communities welcome leasing revenue and tax incentives, opposition from homeowners and environmentalists can impede projects.

Opponents often use local zoning regulations to circumvent state-backed certification processes, delaying or preventing new wind farms. Several towns in New York have adopted six-month moratoriums on siting turbines and the meteorological towers needed to assess wind resources, frustrating state efforts to site utility-scale generation.

“Local government opposition to siting a project or organized community opposition can strongly influence state regulatory commission decisions,” said Stein. “That means political pressure on town councils from local residents that support renewables can make or break a proposal.”

Communities often lack ordinances to deal with turbine siting, so when a new project is proposed, the most vocal opponents can lead local action, and state-siting preemption can overlook solutions benefitting local communities. But if local governments create ordinances dealing with siting or developers build local support before projects are proposed, all sides can benefit.

Wind developers should also explore land trust or other conserved properties to site new generation. One approach under consideration in New York is encouraging local land trusts to review their inventories and aid in identifying suitable sites for wind turbines, while designing new conservation easements to include wind energy.  

Offshore Wind’s Role Moving Forward

Offshore wind can, and likely must play a larger role in Northeast renewable energy goals. Massachusetts’ Cape Wind experience reminds us that offshore wind is not immune from siting challenges, but new projects are faring better with more state support and better site identification.

State or regional transmission planning, similar to the proposed New Jersey-Virginia Atlantic Wind Connection offshore transmission project, can also drive new project development and dramatically reduce offshore development cost. Organizing coastal interconnections and undersea transmission networks can lead to faster and cheaper solutions linking offshore wind farms with onshore load centers — often at previously developed industrial areas along the coast.

Offshore wind could also tap grid infrastructure left behind as generation along coastlines is retired, especially substations and interconnection points currently servicing aging or uneconomic nuclear or coal plants. These could help balance supply and demand as the market pushes older fossil fuel generation offline. “Coastal power plants such as large nuclear plants slated for retirement may serve as ideal low-conflict terminals for new clean electricity to flow onto the grid,” said Stein.

Uncovering New Locations for Solar in Overlooked Places

Solar faces different challenges than wind, as arrays require 5-10 acres covered with panels per megawatt, eliminating agricultural and recreational use. But reconsidering underutilized land and infrastructure could open significant locations for solar. “More and more creative investors are identifying viable sites for solar in crowded cities, suburbs, and rural areas,” said Stein.

“Brightfields,” or solar on brownfields/contaminated sites and capped landfills, could restore former industrial sites and factories to productive use in proximity to communities without requiring significant new transmission. The EPA’s RE-powering program has identified 80,000 potential sites nationwide, and many local governments provide tax incentives and streamlined permitting processes for brightfield developments.

Prison lands are another promising option, as most correctional institutions are surrounded by vacant land and are large electricity consumers. Several states have made open land surrounding prisons available for solar — in 2015 New York State issued a request for proposals to site arrays on state-owned land surrounding upstate prisons and sell power to correctional facilities under 20-year contracts.

Community solar also holds potential in urban areas, for low-income customers or renters who can’t install rooftop solar, and for rural communities where resilience to outages is low. These customers contribute to renewable generation financing through electric bills, and community solar provides equitable solar access with bill savings through net metering credits, at locations close to demand. Community solar also can drive solar prices down by pooling demand from individual rooftop systems into larger centrally located projects — median costs for non-residential solar is 13-38 percent less than average residential systems.

“No Reason to Scale Back”

Despite siting challenges, regional renewable goals shouldn’t be abandoned.

“There’s no reason to scale back,” said Stein. “Germany meets its electricity needs with 35 percent renewables, and California, Texas, and Iowa are rapidly following suit with more than 50 percent renewables at times — Northeast states, collectively motivated to decarbonize their economies, are right to confidently follow suit.”

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