As the White House considers comments on its proposal to reform federal permitting rules under the National Environmental Policy Act, bringing efficiency and greater streamlining to the federal permitting process is an important step to meeting the demands of the clean energy expansion while meeting our critical reliability responsibilities.
Wind turbine field. Permitting reform on the federal level will be necessary to ensure the energy mix can continue to grow, bringing more reliable, cost-effective, and sustainable resources to the grid. Credit: iStock/Dar1930
September 29 was the deadline to submit comments regarding the Council on Environmental Quality’s (CEQ) July 31, 2023 “Phase 2” proposal to reform federal permitting rules under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). EPSA submitted formal comments, augmenting our formal policy position on permitting reform, to note that:
- EPSA supports the nation’s clean energy expansion and believes that a broad spectrum of generation and storage assets will be needed going forward. This diversity of assets is vital to maintaining electric grid reliability while simultaneously moving towards a cleaner electric grid and minimizing the adverse cost impacts borne by electricity consumers.
- A more efficient and predictable permitting process need not result in reduced environmental standards or compromising environmental protections. EPSA strongly believes that a better balance can be achieved between the overarching protections under NEPA and providing more certainty and transparency to the current process.
- To accomplish the important goals outlined by the CEQ, the federal permitting process should be streamlined and made more efficient for all types of generation and storage assets. Discriminating against certain types of electric generation will place inordinate burdens on those least able to bear the full impact of inefficient policymaking – including higher electricity rates and degraded reliability.
Key Clean Energy Efforts Hinge on Permitting Reform
As the CEQ hunkers down to read through the submitted comments, several other legislative and regulatory efforts are in progress to reduce emissions and incentivize renewable energy production – all of which will require investment in substantial energy infrastructure. These efforts are individual trees in a larger forest of the nation’s clean energy expansion. They may be carried out individually, but all seek to transition to a cleaner electric grid by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They will also all require the building of significant amounts of energy infrastructure and will benefit from a streamlined and more efficient permitting process.
- The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is hailed as one of the largest climate-focused efforts in U.S. history. Initial estimates pegged the federal investment in the IRA at close to $400 billion, but a more recent analysis estimates the cost at $1.2 trillion for a slew of renewable/clean energy initiatives. Successful deployment of this funding will require development of wind, solar, and storage facilities (to name a few IRA-supported technologies) – resources that may encompass a significant footprint (e.g., acreage) to develop the necessary turbines or panels. If the status quo NEPA process isn’t improved, these investments may be significantly delayed or abandoned altogether.
- The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rule tightening CO2 emissions from power plants is significantly dependent on widespread commercial adoption of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) or hydrogen cofiring. As EPSA mentions in its formal comments, those technologies rely on infrastructure like pipelines to transport carbon from the point of capture to a geologically appropriate repository or to carry hydrogen to a power plant. If permitting doesn’t allow timely deployment of CCS or hydrogen infrastructure, the alternative for affected generators is to either choose to run less frequently (to avoid the applicability threshold) or retire. Neither option enhances reliability or results in a cleaner electric grid.
- Electric transmission – particularly interregional transmission – has received significant attention in Congress this year, with supporters hoping to prescribe minimum levels of interregional transfer capability among adjacent regions. Even if ever-thorny cost allocation issues can be resolved, the permitting of high voltage transmission will be a substantial challenge. There are several instructive examples – including the SunZia project – of the difficulties in building electric transmission. However, even if you view transmission as an important conduit to bring remote renewable resources to load centers or as a way to increase reliability between regions, the current permitting process stands as a significant barrier to development.
Bipartisan Support for a new Approach
U.S. Congressman Scott Peters (CA-50), a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and a staunch supporter of renewable energy development, has called for a shift in the way that NEPA is viewed. To paraphrase, Congressman Peters notes that when NEPA was enacted in 1970, it was (appropriately) designed as a defensive environmental statute. However, in 2023, the need to build an increasing amount of energy infrastructure to meet our nation’s policy goals should lead supporters to view NEPA as an opportunity to go on offense and lay the groundwork for critical development.
EPSA is proud to have as our members numerous companies that own and are developing substantial renewable energy and storage assets largely through private investment. We also recognize the critical nature of ensuring a sufficient fleet of dispatchable, flexible resources to meet the reliability needs of every home and business in the country. Bringing efficiency and greater streamlining to the federal permitting process is an important step to meeting the demands of the clean energy expansion while meeting our critical reliability responsibilities.