The Clean Energy Revolution is Tripped Up by Environmental Regulation
In recent years, environmental regulation and green energy efforts to combat climate change have increased significantly, causing increased challenges for clean energy land developers.
With the Biden administration's new renewable energy goals to combat climate change, concerns over rapid development impacting aspects of environmental protection, such as water and protected species, have increased. Similar considerations may arise as the Infrastructure Bill gets implemented.
Endangered species are listed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) and protected under the Endangered Species Act. The USFWS recently petitioned for preventative re-listing of the Lesser Prairie Chicken in response to rapid renewable energy development. This species is considered threatened, and this petition could drastically impact wind energy developments should it be listed as an endangered species. These chickens reside on land sought after by wind developers, with suggested regulations requiring a 1-mile radius surrounding each wind turbine where the chicken cannot inhabit. This measure established protected areas to maintain this species habitat to aid wildlife conservation.
This designation could delay or end certain proposed wind farm developments altogether, increasing concern over balancing protection and progress. Brooke Marcus Whalburg, a Nossaman LLC partner, is quoted as saying that the prairie chicken regulations are “at cross purposes with the Biden administration’s climate goals.”
As we continue with our clean energy transition to combat global warming, being mindful of preserving biodiversity will be at the forefront of the conversation. Wildlife will continue to be a concern for all renewable energy technologies in the future.
Not only is there an impact on national wind energy development goals, but President Biden’s goal to transition to electric vehicles is also subject to further regulation challenges. Most U.S. lithium for these vehicles resides in Nevada deserts where Tiehm's Buckwheat, a flower found only in this region in the world, lives. As discussions of mining for this lithium began, concern over the species called for a review of its status. Impacts on the population of this species would have an immediate and bleak effect on its survival. Due to this, USFWS has proposed to list the flower as an endangered species. Though this process can take years, these changes can impact future developments and climate change recovery efforts.
Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy sources can cause a negative environmental impact just as fossil fuel development can. Each renewable energy project should be assessed for environmental impact. Depending on the renewable energy technology, different mitigation actions and sustainable development steps should be considered to reduce risk to endangered species and waters.
Environmental Impacts of Solar Energy
Solar energy is one of the most common clean energy technologies and helps us create renewable electricity. Extensive solar facilities use a great deal of land and can directly impact wildlife or disrupt the habitat of a protected species.
This renewable energy source can cause water, air, and soil pollution due to soil runoff, soil pollution, or incorrect disposal of chemicals used to manufacture the solar panels on these sites. This contamination can have a drastic impact on the surrounding areas and biodiversity. The amount of water used to clean and manufacture the material required for solar panel production has also raised concerns among conservationists. Leaks into and use of this groundwater can have devastating impacts on the wildlife that rely on this water source for survival.
Environmental Impacts of Wind Energy
Wind energy is another renewable energy source that is helpful in electricity generation. At the start of rapid renewable energy production, solar and wind power were considered the environmentally safe alternatives to traditional energy sources. Though renewable energy plays a valuable role in our response to the climate crisis, the Bureau of Land Management now deems these developments a potential threat to wildlife and a threat to specific habitats.
As stated in the case of the lesser Prairie Chicken, the land developed for wind turbines threatens the habitat of protected species. The turbines require a large amount of land with 5-10 rotor diameters (the length of the blades) of space between them. The land development size depends on the desired amount of wind power production. Offshore wind turbines have more sizable blades, require a more significant amount of space between them, and can intervene with activities such as fishing.
These blades threaten traveling birds and bats colliding with these blades in flight. This threat is present with offshore and land-based wind power. Migrating birds are at risk for death or severe injury due to these blades. Proper project siting plays a crucial role in mitigating the impact on wildlife.
Environmental Impacts of Geothermal Energy
We create geothermal energy (a form of thermal energy) by retrieving hot water near hot molten rock close to the Earth's crust. Steam used from these water reservoirs turns a turbine to create electricity generation. These plants, also called hydrothermal energy plants, are either located near these "hot spots" or mechanically enhanced to drill down into these regions.
These plants rely on pulling water from reservoirs, raising water usage concerns. However, many of these plants are "closed-loop" systems regarding water usage, leaving a small margin for a water deficit. Many of these plants create this closed loop by pumping the water back into the reservoir after use and using water from outside sources to make up for the water lost as steam. Using water from these reservoirs can cause "land sinking" if not refilled.
When enhanced systems use processes similar to hydraulic fracking, earthquake risk increases. Siting plays a crucial role in mitigating this risk by ensuring projects are developed away from fault lines. Additionally, the land use for these plants varies on the desired energy production. Developing these lands raises similar concerns for wildlife and their habitats as the energy sources listed prior.
Open-loop geothermal plants release emissions that turn into sulfur dioxide (SO2). However, these emissions are 30 times lower than a coal plant. These plants also release about 0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour compared to 0.6 to 2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour for coal plants. Though these numbers are an improvement, monitoring them to regulate pollution is essential.
Environmental Impacts of Hydropower
Hydroelectric power is a sustainable energy source that can exist as large dams or small run-of-the-river plants and assists in electricity generation. The size of these plants and the slope of the surrounding area determine their land use. Developing this land runs a similar risk for biodiversity as listed prior. Flooding this land can even cause communities to relocate in some instances.
Developers implement precautions such as fish ladders and intake screens to limit the danger to wildlife. However, turbine blades within the dam can still kill fish and other species.
The stagnant waters present additional dangers in these reservoirs. The water can collect excess algae blooms and weeds from excess sediment and nutrients. This excess can crowd the ecosystem and push out other aquatic species. The storage of this water can also cause other parts of the river to dry out, which has led to the requirement of operators releasing water at certain times of the year.
How Can We Meet Our Climate Goals and Still Protect the Environment?
As renewable technologies are on the rise, so are regulations. The development industry has never been as at odds with itself as it is now. The U.S. is investing trillions of dollars into projects that have the potential to lose a large percentage of their budget or the entirety of their project to red tape.
How can we meet our climate goals while still upholding the regulations that protect our environment? Is it possible to reach these goals without putting wildlife at risk? Can we balance wildlife conservation and an energy transition? We believe the answer is yes; it just might take some innovation.
The answer to accelerating development while maintaining environmental protection isn’t avoiding or adding regulations; it lies in time. We do not need to save years but rather minutes to accomplish these goals. By taking the time to do early-stage environmental due diligence, developers can save themselves years of developing a property filled with ecological red flags.
Early-Stage Environmental Due Diligence is the Key
We can protect investors' money, developers' time, and endangered species habitats by selecting a viable project site before buying or signing a lease. Efficiency can be slight changes to a process with a significant domino effect of an impact. Making a 180-degree turn doesn't need to be a rapid movement; it can be a series of small steps that eventually point you in the right direction.
We believe the concept of hurting an aspect of the environment to save the environment is contradictory and simply a "lesser of two evils" debate. That is why we are so passionate about due diligence and innovation. We need to become vigilant about selecting our site and approaching our development timelines to aid green energy efforts. As our rate of development increases, as does our impact- this stands true of any industry. Mitigating that impact by identifying it early on and allowing the time needed to innovate a process for its regulations will allow for more efficient projects.