Planning and regulating renewables in the Manchin-Schumer deal
August 1, 2022 4:36 AM   Subscribe

I read that the Manchin-Schumer deal eases planning-related regulations for renewable energy installations. In some areas, solar has become a double-edged sword, with solar installations taking down large forests. I think that fine-tuning the incentives would help, but in the meantime, local planning and zoning regulations are protecting the woods. Does the Manchin-Schumer deal make it harder for localities to do that?

I can't find the article I read that mentioned that planning-related regulations were loosened by the deal, and it didn't have any specifics anyway. What changes does their deal actually have in regards to regulating renewable installations? If it does make it harder for localities to protect forests, is there still time to revise that? And if I'd like that to happen, what are my best actions, on what timeline? Calls to my representative and senators now? Anything else?

I'm definitely pro-solar, but I don't believe in clear-cutting forests, even to make way for it. I've heard some research both ways about whether the benefits of solar outweigh the loss of forests' carbon sequestration and other advantages, but since there's lots of money on one side of the argument, I'm inclined to believe the other. Just from looking out the window of an airplane, it seems like there are lots of better places to put solar than where large forests would be clearcut to make way for them. I've heard a counter-argument about site availability at the needed scale, and so far, I don't buy it. So if you have deep expertise in this area and I'm wrong, I'm open to hearing why... but otherwise I'd love to stick to whether the deal threatens the preservation of forests and what, if anything, I can do about it.
posted by daisyace to Law & Government (2 answers total)
Best answer: In the US, I think the only region where solar farms are often built in forests is the east coast (which is a consequence of how much tree cover there is now in that area compared to historically). Almost everywhere else, there is so much land that is already open (or never had trees to begin with) that solar is preferentially placed on open ground because it is cheaper to build there. That doesn't mean that there aren't local controversies and opposition -- some people want to protect existing farmland, or intact/remnant habitats for shrub or desert species, say.

But all that said, right now solar farms tend to receive a lot of NIMBY and politically-driven (ie, anti-renewable energy) local opposition which slows down the process considerably and adds enormous cost; at its extreme, this can mean local moratoriums on renewable energy projects, or regulations that on paper appear to allow the projects but in practice block them. At the state level, some states have created processes and agencies (like the EFSECs in Washington and Oregon, say) that provide an alternate path for permitting energy facilities that can bypass obstructionist local government, thereby creating the possibility of meeting statewide carbon-free energy goals.

I haven't looked at the bill closely at all, but from reading articles, the measures in it seem to be focused on streamlining the federal parts of the permitting process, with the goal of shortening the (currently very long) time from proposing the project to being able to build it. It does not remove the role of local oversight or opposition, whether genuine (like protecting valuable habitats) or NIMBY. Whether that is good or bad is going to depend on your perspective on energy projects; a lot of people are just plain opposed to them unless they are located far away, pretty much regardless of any other factor.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:38 AM on August 1, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I am, indeed, on the east coast, right next to a town where another large installation recently went in where a forest used to be, this time also causing issues with water runoff. Out-of-state solar developers call about forests they're eyeing here because our state policies over-incentivize their use. There's a big lumber company that's heavily involved so that cutting would be an additional profit rather than a cost.

I agree that there's a NIMBY element to solar, and that we do need it to go somewhere. But as someone who's used to thinking of solar as a force for good, it's disconcerting to see Big Solar emerging and trying to maximize profit when I'd rather they pursue what I admit may be a somewhat more expensive path of maxing out brownfields, developed areas, and meadows before turning to forests. So I appreciate knowing that the deal likely focuses on removing federal roadblocks, rather than trying to overrule localities -- thank you!
posted by daisyace at 4:58 PM on August 1, 2022 [1 favorite]

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