US renewables ‘frenzy’ puts land conflicts on corporate radar


A solar panel range is seen in what was once a field used for agriculture, in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley near Huron, California on July 23, 2021. Photo: AFP

On the ground, workers load up vans before drivers fan out from the vast Washington parcel depot to make deliveries across the US capital. On the roof, 3,000 solar panels silently do their own job – feeding clean energy into the city’s power grid.

By taking advantage of a large, unused rooftop space in a dense urban area, developers of the nearly 1-megawatt solar project on top of a FedEx building say it could serve as a model of smart land use as the US aims for 100 percent clean power generation by 2035.

Such rooftop setups are becoming more common in parts of the country as solar project developers and planning officials seek to reduce land competition and opposition from local residents, which complicated the early development of wind farms.

“Not developing new land is obviously a big [priority]and we’re always looking to do that,” said Mark Cooper, engineering director at Sol Systems, the project’s developer, standing among the shimmering sweep of high-efficiency panels.

“Even when we’re on the ground, we’re looking to recondition brownfield sites and similar places,” he said.

FedEx said the project, which was officially launched in May, could be a template for more of its large buildings across the country.

The package company, which has a goal of making its operations carbon-neutral by 2040, is also allocating credits to a local homelessness nonprofit to offset their electricity bills.

Solar projects can have an enormous footprint – 1 megawatt of solar power often requires 5 to 10 acres (2 to 4 hectares) of land, analysts said. That has fueled new efforts to provide guidance on where solar farms should be located.

Some voluntary industry guidelines exist around the siting of wind turbines, which have been around longer, but there is nothing similar yet for solar, said Nathan Cummins, director of renewable energy programs at the Nature Conservancy, a global nonprofit.

“There’s a history of conflict with energy development,” he said. “Now solar is taking off in a big way, and we want to get ahead of it in a way we couldn’t with wind.”

The Department of Energy did not respond to requests for comment on plans for renewables siting guidance.

In 2021, renewables made up about 12 percent of US electricity consumption, according to the US Energy Information Administration, though President Joe Biden has set a goal of creating a power sector that is carbon pollution-free by 2035.

Yet renewable energy projects frequently have run into siting conflicts, said Cummins, leading to delays and even cancellations.

He cited a series of wind projects planned over the past decade in Osage County, Oklahoma, near a reserve of some of the nation’s last remaining tall-grass prairie.

The prospect of towering wind turbines in the area sparked opposition over the potential impact on wildlife and riled local indigenous communities – disputes that reached the US Supreme Court in 2019.

“Many of those planned developments now are stalled, an example of what we don’t want to see,” Cummins said. “That type of capital could have been deployed in other areas that could have already been delivering green and clean energy.”

In February, the Nature Conservancy released a public tool called Site Renewables Right that seeks to identify the best places for new renewables development.

It maps land in 19 states, comprising three-quarters of renewables development potential, against 100 datasets that take into account critical habitats and bird migratory routes as well as the extent to which land has already been exploited.

“We found at least 120,000 square miles [311,000 square kilometers] of low-impact potential development zones,” Cummins said.

PepsiCo – which is striving to become net-zero by 2040 – is among the major corporations already using the Site Renewables Right tool.

Such data is a “critical lever [and] helps organizations make informed business decisions when evaluating renewable energy projects,” said Roberta Barbieri, the firm’s vice president of global sustainability.

‘Avoid mistakes of the past’

Much of the current momentum in creating guidelines on where to locate green power projects stems from a 2020 report released by cloud computing company Salesforce, which in 2021 succeeded in powering all of its operations through renewable energy.

Called More Than A Megawatt, the report played a key role in influencing project developers and sent an important signal to the market, said Megan Lorenzen, a senior sustainability manager at Salesforce who was one of the report’s authors.

“Not all renewable energy is created equal,” she said. “Some renewable energy projects displace more fossil fuels than others, some are built at the cost of critical habitats for plants and animals, and others provide invaluable support for their local community.”

A group called the Clean Energy Buyers Institute – affiliated with a group of major energy purchasers including Amazon, Google and the Walt Disney Co – announced an initiative in June to take up the report’s recommendations in a bid to broaden its impact.

As more US companies outline plans to slash their emissions, best practice guidelines on renewables development are in hot demand.

“There’s a bit of a [renewables] buying frenzy right now,” said Zach Starsia, transactions director at LevelTen Energy, which runs an online marketplace connecting renewable projects with purchasers and investors.

He said that corporate buyers were increasingly looking beyond the cost of different green energy projects to consider factors such as their conservation impact, and whether their location might create risks for the initiatives.

“These types of concepts have only come into scope in the last 24 or even 12 months,” he added.

In November, Starsia, Cummins and others released a paper that sets out key principles for increased sustainability and equity in renewable projects.

It encourages those developing or procuring renewable energy to engage early on with communities near new projects and hire local workers, minimize wildlife disturbance, and avoid forests, viable farmland and natural areas in general.

“We’re hoping to avoid the mistakes of the past,” Starsia said.

Reuters

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