Friday, Feb. 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
There’s nothing like the elation you get from flipping the switch on a new, record-breaking renewable energy plant.
But amid all the pomp and circumstance, it can be easy to forget the difficult path even the most “green” energy projects must tread before they become reality.
A few years ago, residents and environmentalists rarely objected to clean energy development in their hometowns. But as the country prepares for massive growth in the number of renewable energy installations, environmental lawyers say there are rumblings from various groups about where these electric plants are located and whether the benefit of the emission-free electricity is worth the environmental price.
“In general terms, I would say there is no project of any kind anymore in energy or any other major development that doesn’t come under a great deal of scrutiny from interested individuals or special-interest groups, whether environmentalists or residents,” said former Nevada Gov. Bob List, now an environment and energy attorney with the law firm of Armstrong Teasdale. “I think that renewables are no exception to that.”
That’s because for all their “green” credentials no renewable energy project is without its environmental drawbacks and community effects.
Hydropower and the dams that come with them interrupt the natural flow of rivers and the migration and breeding of native fish; geothermal plants require water and their exploratory drilling sometimes damages the land; modern wind farms kill migratory birds and bats and kick up dust during construction; utility-scale solar photovoltaic arrays are made from sometimes toxic or unsustainably mined materials and require vast expanses of land formerly open to native animals; and solar thermal plants face the same land use issues as solar PV but also can’t operate without a good deal of water.
On top of that, some wildlife biologists and environmentalists say the new transmission lines that would bring the electricity from planned electric plants to big cities such as Las Vegas often crisscross major migration routes for endangered species, destroying vegetation and affecting grazing and mating routes.
“People are beginning to realize there are some problems associated with all these renewable energy sources and maybe we haven’t really thought them through like we should have,” said Mark Stermitz, an environmental lawyer with the law firm of Glaser Weil Fink Jacobs & Shapiro.
“Environmental groups are just starting to think these things through and do some research and decide how to come down on these things.”
Increasingly, they’re coming down in opposition to renewable energy plants.
Environmentalists are battling California solar companies to stop planned solar plants in the Mojave Desert as well as expansion of the transmission grid between California and Nevada.
Dams across the Pacific Northwest — some of which already produce hydroelectricity — are going to be demolished to restore watersheds and fish and wildlife habitat.
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones pushing back. Ranchers across the West are fighting to keep their historical grazing grounds and protect the water tables on which they and their livestock depend.
Rural residents in Nevada and the Midwest are fighting wind farms they say will ruin views and subject them to the sound of wind turbines churning all night.
American Indian tribes are concerned historical, cultural and religious sites could be covered in solar panels or ripped up to accommodate transmission-line towers.
And property-rights advocates complain that private property — mostly in the Midwest and Eastern states — will be seized to make room for the huge transmission lines necessary to create a national electric grid.
“Everybody is so behind green energy until the wind turbine goes up on the ridge behind your house,” said Rick Campbell, an environmental attorney with Armstrong Teasdale. “Even though in the long run it’s a clean type of energy compared to coal, you still have (significant) environmental issues related to these types of energy ... There is no kind of project that has no impact on anyone.”
As more wind, solar and geothermal electric plants are proposed across the country, the objections are rising as well, the lawyers said.
And local planning divisions and lawmakers are paying more attention to the complaints than ever before.
Lawyers said that’s in a large part because government agencies are no longer dealing with a proposal for one small renewable energy plant. Politicians and clean-energy advocates across the nation are pushing for a dramatic increase in renewable energy generation in a short period of time.
Federal agencies in the West and Midwest are already dealing with dozens of applications for land-use permits for new plants.
Where one plant in a county might have gotten little objection, the prospect of several becomes more controversial.
“I just think what’s going on know is a function of the number of projects out there, which has increased astronomically in the past three years,” Stermitz, said. “So it’s getting harder to ignore opposition and people are starting to see them on the ground more. It’s easy to talk about wind or solar power being a great renewable energy source until you’re driving through an area and all you see is turbines and then it starts to hit home what exactly that would look like.”
The life of many of these electric plants also depends heavily on federal and local subsidies. But as the economy continues its nose-dive and many states face insolvency, there is a chance subsidies could fall out of favor.
One state — Ohio — has already pulled its grant program for renewables, a move that has been proposed in other cash-strapped states.
Most environmental lawyers and renewable energy advocates say that even with the federal incentives, removal of state incentives in places such as Nevada would essentially kill renewable energy development here.
Individual renewable energy projects are now in peril at every step, from acquiring land to final permits.
In Nevada, most renewable energy projects are proposed for federally operated land — most of it under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Siting a renewable energy plant on federal land requires a series of environmental reviews and permits and in some cases fighting for the land in an auction.
Then there are local approvals to get: zoning approval from a city or county and water rights from the state, among other things.
The siting and permit processes typically take years and an objection can be lodged at any point, putting the entire project in jeopardy.
That’s happening with increasing frequency, environmental lawyers said.
“It’s a mix of economics and science and law and politics,” List said. “It’s a tremendous leap of faith when a developer begins to dive into one of these projects.”
The rising number of objections have come as a nasty shock to some renewable energy developers who are more used to being lauded as the heroes of a green revolution and economic recovery.
Where once a renewable energy developer could simply slide into town and have a chat with the planning commission and BLM before picking a site and starting the permit process, the savviest are now hiring local planners and lawyers in an attempt to avoid controversial sites and move through the permit process more smoothly.
Because renewable energy plants — particularly solar plants — require so many permits and operate on such a thin margin of profitability, it is becoming easier than ever for project opponents to scuttle clean energy plants.
“Any kind of major surprise can kill a project real quickly,” List said.
In recent months the credit crunch has stalled or killed many renewable energy projects in the United States. Although that has stalled the massive potential job creation expected to accompany a green energy revolution, it has also given everyone from environmentalists to property-rights activists to county planners some room to step back and look at the long-term implications of widespread renewable energy development.
And while that second look may mean some plants no longer pass muster, lawyers say it’s more likely to result in an end result we can all live with.