Windfarm Siting: “Not In My Backyard: A Challenge To Decarbonization That Can Be Overcome”

Windfarm Siting: “Not In My Backyard: A Challenge To Decarbonization That Can Be Overcome”

Photo: Newsday via Getty Images – View of wind turbines off Block Island, Rhode Island in 2017
“Building large energy projects is hard business. Among the greatest challenges renewable power plant developers face is the question of where to build a new facility. This process, known as ‘siting,’ is much more complicated than finding land with strong wind speeds or solar irradiation. A tangled web of interrelated factors such as access to electric transmission, conflicts over competing land use, and environmental degradation must be navigated through multiple federal, state, and local regulatory permitting processes. It is exceedingly rare for a major project to sail through the siting process smoothly…

Fully decarbonizing the U.S. economy is a massive task. A recent study found that to reach 90% clean energy by 2035, the United States would need to build approximately 75 gigawatts of new solar, wind and storage capacity a year for the next 15 years. According to the study’s companion memorandum, renewable growth at this scale would require approximately 5,100 square miles of land for ground-mounted solar and 58,000 square miles for wind power plants. That’s a huge amount of land: most of the State of Connecticut for solar generation and the entire State of Illinois for wind—with still a larger geographic footprint for energy storage and other enabling technologies.

Of course, there are ways to moderate such a massive need for land, as solar and wind generation can co-exist with other productive uses of land. Solar generation can be built on top of existing infrastructure. For example, rooftop solar and parking lot solar canopies can certainly offset some utility scale solar development on undisturbed land. Similarly, agricultural use, such as cattle grazing, can occur between wind turbines. To the extent the nation seeks to secure a decarbonized economy, multi-use strategies will be necessary. However, a huge amount of land will still need to be devoted to renewable generation.

That fact will likely lead to more siting challenges. ‘Solar and wind generation require at least 10 times as much land per unit of power produced compared to coal or natural gas-fired power plants,’ a recent Brookings Institution report points out. ‘Most people say that they are in favor of renewable energy, in the abstract. But we are beginning to see a backlash against the land use implications of renewable energy in the United States, especially in wealthy, politically-active communities.’ While the political winds are currently tilting us towards a cleaner energy future, it seems inevitable there will be many conflicts over siting new renewable plants, even with streamlined permitting…”

— David Cherney, Forbes
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