The push hasn’t come hard or fast enough. For all the talk about getting more renewable energy projects going on federal lands, the policies in place don’t move projects to the industry’s liking.
That seemed to be the consensus at a recent hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing, "American Energy Initiative: Identifying Roadblocks to Wind and Solar Energy on Public Lands and Waters."
The amount of time a project can be delayed by its opposition is one of the complaints. At 11 years and counting before the Cape Wind offshore project in Massachusetts ever gets going, developer Jim Gordon is an expert o the topic.
“One fundamental defect is that it lacks any legal requirements that would limit the duration of the review period,” Gordon said. “As a result, with no required end point, opponents can use regulatory stalling and delay tactics to try to financially cripple even a project that meets all statutory standards and serves federal and state policy objectives.”
Gordon suggested a three-pronged approach to move projects through the permitting pipeline:
- Environmental review pursuant to specific statutory timeframes that prevent delay tactics from financially crippling projects
- Projects that require federal approvals would be expedited significantly if all such reviews were consolidated in a single appellate proceeding
- Federal investment incentives for long lead time renewable energy projects are typically put in place for time periods far shorter than the time required for permitting, environmental review and construction
Frank DeRosa, senior vice president for project development at First Solar, commended federal officials for making progress in some areas of review for projects on federal lands, but he cited one policy gap.
Federal environmental standards are enforceable on private lands, but at an apparently much slower pace. “If a proposed solar project on private land has the potential to adversely affect a listed (endangered) species or critical habitat, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service requires the solar developer to prepare a Habitat Conservation Plan,” he said. “Unfortunately, for projects with no Federal nexus (Federal funding, license or permit) under the current process it can take from three to five years to receive the required permits versus four to six months to complete the permitting process for either projects on Federal land or with a Federal nexus. As a result, projects with no Federal nexus are typically abandoned or not undertaken at all.”
But all the policy streamlining in the world won’t fix the project development gap if other federal incentives aren’t extended or made semi-permanent in the tax code, the renewable energy industry maintains.
"Developers face many hurdles in bringing a solar project to fruition, whether on public or private lands. Our industry needs stable, predictable policies for continued growth,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The lapse of the Section 1603 Treasury grant program at the end of this year and the projected end of the production tax credit in 2012 are just two examples.
“Given lead times for project development, it is important to act now to avoid a lull in development post-2012. Business decisions for 2013 are already being made,” said Roby Roberts, representing the American Wind Energy Association.
And at the pace of legislation in the current stalemated Congress, prospects for quick action are questionable, at best.