New Hampshire Rejects Northern Pass Transmission Line Permit: The rapid response justifies some of the Northern Pass critics’ concerns. It also jeopardizes Massachusetts’ clean energy procurement plans.GreenTech Media

Wind Projects Rejected In Nebraska And Ohio, Wind Rejections Across U.S. Now Total 328 Since 2015 Forbes Magazine

Freehold Township rejects 9,000-panel solar farmAsbury Park Press

On April 22, 2021, President Biden announced an ambitious target for US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. He pledged to reduce these emissions by 50% or more from 2005 levels by 2030. This commitment is almost double the previous US pledge to reduce emissions by slightly less than 30% by 2025, and, despite the US installing 35 gigawatts (GW) of new renewable energy-generating capacity in 2020 alone, there’s still a long way to go to meet that pledge. Yet, as the news headlines above shout out, proposed energy infrastructure projects to meet that pledge—whether that means transmission, wind, or solar—are being rejected.

A study led by CBI board member Dr. Lawrence Susskind found that the opposition to renewable projects is multifaceted, motivated by concerns that can include private property values, land use, environmental effects, financing, health and safety, the fairness of public process, or intergovernmental disputes. In addition, the deep skepticism toward experts and elites permeating contemporary American politics intensifies the challenge. As one respondent stated—in an Apex open-access survey regarding the Exploring Wind project—about who they would trust for information about a proposed wind energy project in Vermillion County, Indiana: “I trust no one but myself.”

In our work with state-wide climate planning and site-specific controversies, we’ve seen partisan affiliation and identity conflicts also increasingly characterize siting debates. According to a recent Pew poll, while most US adults (some 67% of those polled) think government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change, only 39% of those identifying as Republican support this view, while 90% of Democrats do. When asked if renewables should be prioritized over fossil fuels, 77% of respondents agreed, as did a majority (62%) of those identifying as Republican or leaning Republican. But within that Republican cohort, more conservative, older, and male respondents showed the least support for that statement. And yet, perhaps curiously, deep red Texas has the largest installed capacity for wind generation in the country, surpassing the second-highest wind energy state, Iowa, by almost three times.

The complexities of environmental statutes, regulations, and processes, as with any kind of new project from gas turbine plants to pipelines, now constrain the numerous efforts needed for a carbon transition. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein suggests that the very constituencies who advanced and protect these regulatory structures themselves came from a place of deep skepticism of government agencies and authorities. Klein writes: “Laws meant to ensure that government considers the consequences of its actions have made it too difficult for government to act consequentially.” Congress has taken notice. For many years, Republicans have sought regulatory reform, including to the National Environmental Policy Act and its implementation across federal agencies. And more recently, many (but not all) Democrats have begun to come around to regulatory reform as well. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) almost included reforms negotiated by Senators Schumer and Manchin, but was dropped at the last minute because of Democratic opposition.

At CBI, we’re no strangers to this domain of dispute. Before founding CBI in the early 1990s, Susskind proposed A Negotiation Credo for Controversial Siting Disputes. Decades later in 2018, we published Resolving Land and Energy Conflicts with Anthem Press. We’ve developed, proposed, and deployed several tools to mediate and mitigate conflict, including stakeholder assessment, joint fact finding, interest-based negotiation around community benefits, more robust public engagement, greater transparency, citizen workshops, expert panels, and more. And yet, rigorously collaborative efforts have sometimes resulted in no action, or even contributed to obstacles. For instance, CBI co-led an extensive stakeholder engagement process in New Hampshire to reform its state-wide energy siting process and allow more local influence on decisions, and upon completion of that process, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC), noting effects on local tourism and business, promptly rejected the Northern Pass proposed transmission line, a key component of Massachusetts’s clean energy procurement plan.

We have come to learn much about energy infrastructure siting:

  • All concentrated energy infrastructure to fuel modern life has adverse effects, from conventional fossil fuel to the most advanced renewable projects. Politics and public policy must decide which adverse effects are more important than others given the benefits they provide.
  • Full local control will likely reject too many projects, but too much state control will override local citizens, reduce the local quality of life, and erode the democratic norm of people having a meaningful say in decisions affecting them locally and directly.
  • Traditional siting processes, economics, and historic injustice easily drive too many siting choices into communities historically and currently overburdened with numerous, disproportionate, and adverse environmental effects. This must stop.
  • Current regulatory and economic approaches do not often compensate local communities for bearing the concentrated costs of large energy projects that have essential but diffuse public benefits.
  • Existing local public input mechanisms such as board meetings and public hearings are ill-equipped to support citizens wrestling with the complexity inherent in siting large-scale projects.
  • The current mishmash of federal, state, and local jurisdictions and reviews is simply not up to the task of ensuring the US meets its GHG emission goals.

Here is the challenge before CBI: How can we deploy our extensive process expertise to help rapidly advance a clean energy future while ensuring inclusive, transparent, fair, and efficient processes?

We believe the following are a few essential process elements: 

Start collaboration early, and create clear end points

  • Siting processes should be “loaded up front” with collaborative development of siting criteria, encompassing the full range of interests at stake—including those of communities already overburdened by environmental risks or likely to bear the most impact from the project.
  • Site selection should be inclusive and transparent, while also having a beginning, middle and end to the deliberation.

Make strong equity commitments and keep them

  • Site selection processes need to incorporate “do no more harm” principles to overburdened communities and much preferably reduce existing harms and increase opportunities for such communities.
  • Directly affected communities and interests should have a meaningful say in where and how projects are sited
  • Directly affected communities should receive direct benefit or compensation from the project. 

Use and share collaboration tools to improve outcomes

  • Joint fact-finding processes from the projects to policies cannot address fundamental value and identity-based conflicts, but they can help bound problems and options, and thus should be used to generate legitimate and credible information on which to inform and guide decisions.
  • Innovative and experimental process and engagement tools should be used and encouraged by local to federal agencies, with concerted effort to share stories, lessons learned, and successful process experiments in day-to-day business.

Integrate collaboration across levels of siting jurisdiction

  • States and federal agencies need to maintain or advance mechanisms and backstops that allow for the balancing of local, state, regional, and national interests.
  • Dialogue and good process must take place from the local to the national levels, and from a project-by-project to a state and federal policy level. No single level is sufficient alone.
  • Informal and formal regional approaches will be needed to address cross-boundary impacts and opportunities, and these regional mechanisms will require collaboration to stand up and to be sustained.
  • The best collaboration and negotiation practices should be brought into existing formal processes.
  • Collaborative processes will be needed to advance and improve policies and regulations as well as projects. 

Those concerned about rebuilding US infrastructure and acting on climate change do have much to cheer. After many fits and starts, the Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, both with numerous climate-friendly provisions. But the fundamental clean energy challenge—of siting so much, so quickly, within our current politics, statutes, and regulations—remains.

We at CBI have seen that challenge up close. We’ve been part of siting successes, siting rejections that were reasoned and necessary, and siting failures of both process and outcome. Our commitment to taking on the vexing problems of siting has benefitted from hard thinking about such ups and downs, and through it all, the nature of the challenge has only become clearer. We continue to believe that technology, financing, and economics will not be the greatest barriers to a low carbon energy transition. Rather, the biggest obstacles will come from the very human processes, politics, and social conflicts that have defined our era.