Paving a Legal and Regulatory Path to America’s Clean Energy Economy

Posted on May 30, 2018 by Kenneth Berlin

A clean energy revolution is underway in this country, buoyed by market forces making renewable energy sources increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Wind and solar are now cheaper than coal and natural gas in much of the country, and their costs will continue to drop. This stunning decrease in the price of wind and solar generation has created a new paradigm in the energy industry.

Similarly, the cost of energy storage is falling fast, and batteries will soon eliminate – at fully competitive prices – the intermittency issues around wind and solar. Meanwhile, electric vehicles are projected to become both cheaper to purchase and cheaper to run than gasoline cars by 2025.

Despite these extremely favorable economic trends, legal and regulatory barriers that protect fossil fuels continue to slow the transition to a clean energy economy. Removing these obstacles is a critical step toward securing a clean, safe and prosperous future.

At the outset, new clean energy projects face potential challenges around siting and transmission, including permitting restrictions, utilities’ unwillingness to enter into the necessary contracts, and a lack of support from public officials.

Once a project has cleared those hurdles, additional legal, regulatory and policy barriers may remain. Some of the primary impediments include:

o   Non-existing, limited, or even preventative legal frameworks for independent power producers – like homeowners – to sell energy to utilities or third parties. These power purchase agreements are currently allowed in only 26 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

o   Utility interconnection, or connection of home or commercial renewable energy systems to the regional grid, that may be limited or severely restricted by regulation or laws.

o   Lack of or insufficiently priced net metering policies that make renewable investments much less attractive. In 2016, for example, Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) sought to triple fees for solar customers while at the same time reducing credit for net excess generation by approximately three-quarters. After pushback from solar manufacturers and installers, as well as the prospect of hundreds of solar jobs leaving the state, the PUC approved new rules, partially restoring the net metering rate.

o   Tariffs on components of renewable energy systems like those recently announced by the Trump Administration on solar panel imports.

These obstacles don’t even touch on the fact that fossil fuel companies are not held financially responsible for the global warming pollution they dump into our shared atmosphere, leaving everyday Americans to foot the bill for these extraordinary health and economic costs. They also don’t factor in the uneven playing field that well-funded lobbyists tilt in favor of the fossil fuel industry, including enormous government subsidies.

The good news is that many individuals and organizations are working to build the political support needed to remove these barriers, including my organization, The Climate Reality Project, and our Founder and Chairman, former US Vice President Al Gore.

With enough voices working together across many sectors, we can eliminate these challenges and allow market forces and popular support to usher in a new clean energy economy.

Energy Generation – A Classic Love-Hate Paradox of Choice and Conflict

Posted on October 31, 2014 by Sheila Slocum Hollis

“Elmer Gantry,” a noir classic novel by Sinclair Lewis and a 1960 film, features a tortured central character with the word “love” tattooed on the knuckles of  one hand and “hate” on the knuckles of the other hand.  The vision of the hands together intertwined as symbols of the dilemma of the conflicted protagonist’s internal battles is evocative of the disconnect between our deep and undeniable thirst for energy and our disdain for the manner by which it is produced and delivered to us.

A History of Options:

Coal fired power plants are coming under heavy fire as the U.S. seeks to significantly reduce air emissions.  Global climate change, health impacts and a series of other negative effects on the ecosystem are cited as bases for accelerated retirements of these generation stations.  No doubt coal mining is a tough and dirty business; yet for two centuries it has provided the backbone of the development of electric power plants and the extraordinary benefits of electric energy.  How to reconcile this history with the current political climate?  How do we transition from coal as a major US fuel source, one that provides domestic supply and multiple benefits in employment, tax base, and economic activity? 

Likewise, hydroelectric generation is enshrined in the transformation of much of the West in the songs of Woody Guthrie, as a magnificent contribution to our development as a nation.  And, the desirability of hydroelectric generation is magnified when the only “issue on the table” is the greenhouse gas impacts of generation.  Yet, the impacts of hydroelectric development have had deleterious effects on fish, landscapes, and water supply.  And, as drought strangles much of the West, there is a struggle over whether to tear down the much admired, in fact almost “loved,” green dams of the New Deal Era.  The question at issue here is which side is good and which is evil, and the answer is “it all depends.”

Another love-hate relationship lies with the nuclear generation fleet.  From the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions, the nuclear generation fleet is a winner.  Yet to some anti-nuclear interests, the nuclear stations (for the most part, forty years or older) are the devil incarnate, and subject to exorcism.  Yet, these facilities provide nearly 20 per cent of the electric power of the country.  So again, the desire for a clean electric supply and antipathy to the technology clash.  In this case, dealing with the aftermath of closing a nuclear generation station includes the significant and seemingly intractable problem of nuclear waste storage and disposal, leading to more profoundly difficult questions and concerns.

Another emotional “generation war” is centered on the role of natural gas fired generation.  Once again, there are epic clashes over gas.  Gas is ever more obviously abundant and relatively desirable from an environmental standpoint. However, extreme passions have been aroused by gas production-related issues like hydraulic fracturing, new pipeline capacity and fears about safety, and harmful environmental effects from natural gas drilling, production, transportation and distribution.  Despite the fact that natural gas fueled generation has filled approximately a quarter of the nation’s electric generation demand for many years, and is likely to be a major solution to the shift from coal, nuclear and some hydroelectric plants, the heated anti-fracking debate continues.  Thus, the struggle continues between “good,” (by those who see gas as a solution to the need for reliable generation) and “evil” (by those who oppose the drilling, development and delivery impacts of any form of hydrocarbon-related fuel).  Indeed, the politics, sophistication and interest of high profile opponents has elevated the bitter war of words and politics to a new level.

Finally, the role of renewables as a source of generation to replace nuclear, coal and other forms of generation would, superficially, seem to be uncontroversial.  Yet once the specifics of a project become known, opposition to the project grows.  Like politics, all projects are local.  Wind power towers, with associated land use, avian impacts, noise, reliability and transmission-related needs become the object of ire for interests that may not benefit from the projects.  Likewise, solar projects with land use, impact on wildlife water use and other hot-button issues may precipitate other battles.  The beauty of the project is in the eye of the beholder and beneficiary.

            The Paradox Ahead

Overarching all these projects are difficult issues associated with transmission capacity and cost, reliability, taxation, employment and overall local economic dependency.  And uncertainty about the need for new generation makes things worse:  why tolerate potentially disruptive technologies if efficiency increases and other factors means that new generation isn’t needed?  In light of the volatile, complicated, politically charged environment, the struggle for answers and stability will continue.  As long as our society remains conflicted, these issues will continue unabated to be “front page,” and lawyer and politician intensive.  The search for rational solutions to meet the needs of the country for reliable, safe, environmentally acceptable electric generation must continue for the nation to survive and thrive, despite the pain, cost and compromise necessary.  And like the soul of “Elmer Gantry,” we must ultimately cease to be at war with ourselves to survive.  

"Fast-Tracking" of Solar Development Not a Bypass of Environmental Review

Posted on November 20, 2009 by Linda Bullen

On June 29, 2009, Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar announced several initiatives to aid development of solar energy facilities on federal lands in the Western U.S. Working with Western leaders, the DOI initiative would:


  • Designate prime zones for utility-scale solar development
  • Open new Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices to facilitate permit processing
  • Expedite project proposals. 

Twenty-four tracts of BLM land were designated as Solar Energy Study Areas, upon which projects of 10 megawatts or greater would, under this initiative, be eligible for priority processing. This “priority processing” is commonly referred to as “fast-tracking.” In early November 2009, Secretary Salazar announced the fast-tracking of six renewable energy facilities located on federal land in the State of California. 


Fast-tracking is not intended to circumvent any environmental or other process, but rather to facilitate the identified projects identified by the federal agencies involved (most commonly the BLM), giving priority to those that are marked as fast-tracked projects. Nevertheless, several fast-tracked projects, and fast-tracking in general, has come under criticism by some members of the environmental community and others.


This criticism is misplaced to the extent that it suggests that fast-tracked projects are not subject to the same rigorous scrutiny as non-fast-tracked projects. Every utility-scale project on federally-owned land is subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). NEPA mandates thorough review of all environmental aspects of any utility-scale energy project on federal land. 


The NEPA process does not allow for “short cuts” or circumvention of any part of the process on projects upon which NEPA applies. Accordingly, fast-tracking of renewable projects does not result in a less meticulous or careful environmental review, just an expedited one. Efficiency does not equate to inadequacy, and such criticisms are misplaced.

Oregon as Center of Green Energy?

Posted on February 23, 2009 by Richard Glick

 By: Rick Glick and David Blasher of Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP

Many postings on this site have featured local and regional climate change policy initiatives. Oregon is no exception, but at the center of Governor Ted Kulongoski’s climate change strategy is making the state a hub of green technology development. Thus, the Governor seeks to combine greenhouse gas reductions with economic recovery. To that end, the state has used tax and other incentives to lure foreign clean technology investment to the state. Early signs are positive. The German solar cell company Solar World has recently taken over a stilled chip fabrication plant in the Portland suburbs and Sanyo is opening a solar cell facility in Salem. Vestas American Wind Technology, the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world, has announced plans to construct a 400,000 to 600,000 headquarters building near downtown Portland. As Governor Kulongoski declared in his 2009 State of the State address, “There is a green revolution stirring in America, and Oregon is the beating heart of that revolution.” 


To this end, the Governor is jockeying Oregon into a favorable position with President Obama's agenda of creating jobs that foster and incorporate sustainable energy projects. In order to maximize funds that Oregon will receive from the federal stimulus package, the Governor has established a state council called the Oregon Way Advisory Group. The Group is comprised of private business leaders and public officials who have an interest in developing sustainable energy proposals that will highlight Oregon’s green expertise. The Governor believes that by developing innovative projects to encourage job creation in green technologies, Oregon will have a leg up in the race for stimulus cash. “This approach will ensure that Oregon remains a leader in the green revolution,” the Governor said.


The Governor has proposed a legislative package for the current session that will address green energy and climate issues. Central among the Governor’s endeavors is an expansion of the Business Energy Tax Credit in order to attract new green industries to Oregon. The new green bills in the legislature include the following:


·        SB 80 will establish a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse emissions by encouraging innovation and efficiency among Oregon’s industries. 


·        SB 79 is designed to increase energy efficiency in buildings by giving performance certificates to business to enable them to monitor efficiency in new and remodeled buildings. The ambitious goal is to reach zero net emissions by 2030, and in so doing, set Oregon as a leader in creating green building techniques.


·        SB 168 encourages energy independence of the state government by allowing energy efficiency projects on state lands and buildings, thus helping the state government to operate entirely on renewable power.


·        SB 201 is designed to provide an additional $4 million to weatherize and retrofit the homes of 400 low-income families each year, cutting energy costs for families by an average of $314 a year.   


·        SB 603 would stop Oregon from building any new dirty coal power plants and would require new power sources to be at least as clean as natural gas plants. 


·        HB 2120 will reflect the priority of providing more transportation choices for Oregonians in order to reduce emissions and traffic, to improve health, and to cut gas costs. 


·        HB 2121 will encourage the development of solar energy by directing the PUC to integrate up to 17 megawatts of solar energy into Oregon's electricity mix. Oregon launched the nation’s first solar highway at the I-5/I-205 interchange last year. Using Oregon manufacturers for the solar panels and emerging small Oregon businesses to install the solar system will supply jobs and renewable energy today and into the future.


·        HB 2180 would create an Oregon Renewable Energy Fund to provide grants to smaller community renewable energy projects. This bill also seeks to expand the Business Energy Tax Credit to provide a fifty percent tax credit for large-scale energy efficiency investments by businesses. The bill will also encourage sustainable bioenergy such as biofuels that do not compete with good supplies. Finally, HB 2180 will give the Oregon Department of Energy the flexibility to adjust tax credit incentives to encourage the development of the next generation of low and zero emission vehicles.


·        HB 2181 will give local governments bonding authority to provide loans to residential and business energy efficiency projects.


·        HB 2186 authorizes the citizen-comprised Environmental Quality Commission to develop reduction strategies including a low carbon fuel standard and restrictions on the unnecessary idling of trucks and commercial vehicles.


Governor Kulongoski views the current economic crisis as an opportunity to embrace sustainable energy projects that will make Oregon a leader in the future of green industries. As the Governor put it, “My message should be unmistakable – and it is the same message I conveyed to business and government leaders in Japan and China: Oregon is open for business. Especially green business.”