Where Is the Space For All the New Renewable Energy?
by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator
It’s clear that substantial growth of new utility-scale wind and solar development will continue. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has numerous provisions that will support the growth of renewable energy in the United States. These include long-term tax credit extensions for new wind and solar, qualification of stand-alone battery storage for the investment tax credit, and expansion of funding for domestic manufacturing of renewable technology. Thus, wind and solar development will become increasingly competitive against existing coal and natural gas generation on a purely competitive basis.
A recent analysis by S&P Global Commodity Insights suggests that new wind and solar projects will have levelized costs well below the costs of existing coal and gas units by next year. Prior to the passage of the IRA, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) already had projected that construction of new wind and solar capacity would far exceed any other supply source:
Source: Energy Information Administration Electricity Annual 2022
With the additional benefits of the IRA we can expect even more new renewable development on the drawing board. But given that a recent study from the University of Leiden, Netherland, looked at U.S. data and found that on average solar and wind power need 40-50 times more space than coal and 90-100 times more space than natural gas generation, we must ask: Where will we fit all the new renewable development?
The question of where renewables can be built is not an easy one to answer. Renewables need open space and require access to transmission lines that also are not easy to site or build. A recent study by MIT identified 53 utility-scale wind, solar, and geothermal projects that were delayed or blocked by local opposition between 2008 and 2021 in the U.S. Of the projects they studied, “34% faced significant delays and difficulties securing permits, 49% were cancelled permanently, and 26% resumed after being stopped for several months.” Sources of local opposition included concerns over environmental impact, financial viability, lack of public participation, lack of consultation over tribal rights, health and safety, intergovernmental issues, and property values. Indeed, the study concluded that “a fast and fair transition to renewable energy will not be achieved in the U.S. if policymakers and energy developers do not anticipate and respond proactively to the full array of sources of local opposition.”
An example of action to address the gulf between the need for land for renewable growth and local concerns is the Site Renewables Right online resource created by the Nature Conservancy using geospatial science and Esri mapping technology. The site combines more than 100 geospatial layers of wildlife habitat and land-use data to show areas where renewable energy development is most likely to avoid important natural areas resulting in permitting delays and cost overruns. According to a recent article from Esri, a study by the Nature Conservancy found that permitting was three times faster and costs were 7 to 14 percent lower when solar projects were sited in areas of low biodiversity compared to highly biodiverse sites.
While many pieces will need to come together for the renewables industry to meet its ambitious goals, clearly land use is among the most important. Ongoing development of tools such as Site Renewables Right along with frequent and early interaction with local stakeholders will be critical to success.
Learn more about renewable energy and its role in the future in Enerdynamics' two-hour online training course Renewable Energy Overview. The on-demand course explores the primary renewable resources used to generate electricity, the technologies used for each resource, and how each technology actually works. It also examines the key attributes that determine the benefits, costs, and challenges associated with renewable generation technologies and the future potential for each resource. Learn more.
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