CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE SITING OF NEW OCEAN ENERGY AND TRANSMISSION PROJECTS: URGENT PROCESS CONCERNS

Posted on April 8, 2009 by Jeff Thaler

Wind energy is a centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s renewable energy resources program, and coastal wind development offers enormous potential yet faces severe challenges. On April 2, 2009 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar spoke of major findings from a report he had commissioned from Interior scientists.  Secretary Salazar said, “More than three-fourths of the nation’s electricity demand comes from coastal states and the wind potential off the coast of the lower 48 states actually exceeds our entire U.S. electricity demand.” 

While the National Renewal Energy Laboratory has identified more than 1,000 gigawatts of wind potential off the Atlantic Coast and more than 900 gigawatts of wind potential off the Pacific Coast, the Interior Report finds the Atlantic Coast to have greater feasible potential for wind energy due to its relatively shallow ocean depths and proximity to population centers.  By contrast, the deeper waters of the West Coast are less ideal for wind power, while Alaska’s high wind and shallow waters create an excellent potential power source-- but it sits too far from the lower 48 states’ consumers.

 

However, two major obstacles loom for the major renewable energy goals of Secretary Salazar and President Obama:  insufficient electrical transmission grid capacity to bring the power to market, and “environmental sensitivities” such as visual impact complaints.  Each obstacle presents different issues, yet each obstacle can – and MUST – be swiftly solved.

                With respect to transmission siting issues, there are several battles raging in the Courts and Congress at this time.  On February 18, 2009 the Fourth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals ruled in the case of Piedmont Environmental Council v. FERC, No. 07-1651, 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 2944 (4th Cir. Feb. 18, 2009), rejecting arguments by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that the 2005 Policy Act had permitted FERC to order “National Interest” Transmission Projects to go forward even if State Utility Commissions had not approved those projects.  In this case, the New York and Minnesota Utilities Commissions had denied such projects, but those denials were overruled by FERC.  By a 2-1 decision, the 4th Circuit ruled against FERC. 

However, several weeks later, two leading United States Senators-- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)-- each proposed legislation expanding FERC’s authority over the siting of new transmission lines.  Both Senate bills would require all permit decisions and related environmental reviews under applicable federal laws to be completed “not later than 1 year” from the date FERC deems an application to be complete.  Both bills also would provide FERC with siting authority over new interstate transmission lines; FERC would serve as lead agency to coordinate any federal authorizations and environmental reviews; and state and regional permitting entities would be required to develop “interconnection-wide green transmission plans” to be submitted within 1 year to FERC for approval, or else FERC would complete the plan itself.  State Utility Commissioners have testified against these legislative proposals, not surprisingly.

With respect to the environmental “sensitivities” advocated by opponents to many different on- shore and some off-shore wind project proposals in recent years, the two primary issues have been visual impact and wildlife (including marine mammals for off-shore) impacts.  However, frequently missing from the list is the fundamental overriding environmental concern –global warming or climate change.  Very recent scientific work shows that the Noble-Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report issued in 2007 is already out-of-date.  For example, carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere faster than the IPCC had forecast just two years ago.  Moreover, recent studies find that the Arctic and Antarctic regions are warming faster than previously thought, and further find larger-than-expected pools of carbon in Arctic permafrost, which when released will accelerate levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Moreover, since the 2007 IPCC report was issued, unexpectedly rapid melting of the vast Greenland Ice Sheet indicates that sea levels around the world could rise roughly 3 to 6 ½ feet by the end of the Century – almost triple that of the 2007 projections. 

Ocean and terrestrial plant and wildlife habitats already are being damaged by climate change, with the result that many of the birds, mammals, plants, trees and fish which are the subject of concern for some groups opposing wind projects will – in the absence of immediate and rapid facilitation of the siting and construction of clean energy projects – either be driven extinct or forced to move hundreds of miles northward in the United States or into Canada in order to survive during the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.  Likewise, the environmental “concern” of scenic impact from wind turbines will – again in the absence of rapid facilitation of the siting and development of clean energy projects – be adversely impacted by accelerating climate changes that include greater presence of pests capable of destroying forest species and certain plant life.

                In Maine, an Ocean Energy Task Force has been hard at work over the past five months to meet the Governor’s Executive Order to increase our energy independence and security, reduce our substantial reliance upon fossil fuels, and substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by, in part, developing a strategy to identify and recommend solutions to overcome “potential economic, technical, regulatory, and other obstacles to vigorous and expeditious development of grid-scale wind energy generation facilities in Maine’s coastal waters and adjacent federal waters.”  Tidal and wave power options are also being considered.  Sometime this month the Task Force will preliminarily forward to the Maine Legislature proposed legislation that would create a “General Permit” for off- shore wind energy demonstration projects at certain designated sites along the coast of Maine.

In conclusion, global warming, ocean energy, and our electrical grid system are each critical components to the urgent environmental and economic mandates requiring us to engage in a race, akin the 1960s’ race to the moon, to achieve what previously many may have thought to be unachievable – independence from foreign sources of fuel, independence from use of fossil fuels, and a deceleration of global warmer changes upon our hometowns, states, country and world.



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