Randy T Simmons, PhD

Utah State University

Ryan M Yonk, PhD

Southern Utah University


Widespread and significant development of non-fossil, non-nuclear, non-hydro energy resources such as solar, wind, and geothermal faces three kinds of challenges: technical, economic and political. Each of these is as important to developing these energy resources as each leg of a three-legged stool. A project may be technically and economically feasible, but it may still face political difficulties. This report evaluates the political challenges to developing alternative energy, an issue that is seldom considered by alternative energy proponents.

Traditional fossil fuel development has always faced each of these three challenges and it is often less costly and faster to organize the needed capital for a project than to get through the politics. Opponents to particular projects discovered that the projects had to go through several political chokepoints before receiving authority to proceed. These chokepoints operate much like a firewall between a local network and the internet. Any information that reaches the local network must meet authentication, error detection tests, and rules regarding syntax and semantics before it can enter the local network. Political chokepoints include the requirements established by federal legislation and regulation, and because we are in a federal system they also include state and local laws and regulations. Proposals must authenticate that the proposed project will meet all applicable regulations. Because opponents are skilled at challenging a project the proposal must not contain errors in its projections of impacts on local flora and fauna, groundwater, or air. All this has to be done according to rules and procedures laid out by national, state, and local legislation and court interpretations of that legislation. Firewalls stop any information that violates, or does not meet its procedures, and political chokepoints do the same for proposed energy projects.

Challenges to fossil fuel projects come from a broad range of sources; from well-organized and funded environmental groups to local garden clubs. The concerns vary. Some are simply NIMBYism (Not-in my Backyard) cloaked as environmental concerns. Others raise serious questions about human and environmental health and welfare. The chokepoints allow groups to challenge project viability, environmental effects, and economic and cultural outcomes. In addition, chokepoints allow for challenges to procedures. Did the project need to meet requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) for an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or was it justified in just doing an Environmental Assessment (EA)? Did it provide a realistic range of alternatives as required under NEPA? What about Clean Water Act (CWA) or Clean Air Act (CAA) requirements? Will endangered species be affected? Did the company file needed paperwork on time and in the proper format? Are historical and cultural sites adequately protected as required under the Antiquities Act? Were Native American tribes consulted early in the process? If the project affects any stream does the proposal meet requirements of the Army Corps of Engineers for mitigating wetland impacts? Even if the project gets past all the federal rules does it meet the requirements of a state land use plan or local zoning rules? Can the project be challenged using common law nuisance requirements? The list can go on and on. The point is that there are many political chokepoints and they proliferate with each new local, state, and national law, the regulations that carry out the law, and subsequent court decisions.

Alternative energy projects must go through the same political chokepoints as traditional energy projects. Although nearly everyone favors developing alternative or “green” energy they prefer it be done elsewhere. Local citizens and politicians often consider them unsightly, they may be fatal to local wildlife, legislators want to tax them to increase tax revenues, local communities want to charge impact fees to build local infrastructure, local environmental groups worry about environmental impacts, and Native American Tribes are concerned with effects on sites they consider sacred. It becomes clear quickly that the constraints on alternative energy development are not just physical—long distances from transportation corridors, desert or mountainous terrain, necessary and available water supplies—but political.

The most obvious political chokepoint is the set of national environmental laws that make developing new fossil fuel energy resources difficult. These include the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Clean Air Act (CAA). Each of these acts imposes restrictions that apply to any development. A solar farm that generates as much electricity as a natural gas well and power plant takes up thousands more acres and effectively destroys all vegetation under the collectors. Wind farms also disturb thousands of acres and significantly affect viewsheds. Wind turbines also kill bats and some birds, some of which are endangered. Geothermal plants disturb 1-8 acres per MW. Permits to disturb plant and animal life on public lands have to be granted through a drawn-out permitting process—often five years or more. At least an Environmental Assessment (EA) has to be done and often an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Each of these involves studies, public hearings, other public input, revisions, and finally publication—all examples of political chokepoints

As noted earlier, wind and solar farms can consume thousands of acres. The visual disruption from these plants is significant. The 12 MW solar farm in Upper Sandusky, Ohio consumes 80 acres of former farmland, for example. Almost nothing grows under the solar panels because the panels intercept the sunlight. Wind turbines generating 1.5 MW typically have a hub height of 260 feet with another 115 feet from the hub to the tip of the rotor, making a total height of 375 feet. By comparison the U.S. Capitol building is just less than 289 feet tall and the Statue of Liberty is 305 feet tall. The newest “tall” towers from GE have a hub height of 393 feet and can generate 2.3-2.7 MW. From the hub to the tip of the rotor is another 154 feet so the structure from ground to rotor tip is 547 feet. These are massive structures. The proposed Cape Wind project in the Nantucket Sound would install 130 tall turbines across a 25 mile area and, although Cape Wind has been granted federal approval, local opposition is significant and legal battles continue on a variety of fronts.

Many point to the large federal estate as possible sites for large scale alternative energy production. The federal government controls over one-third of the nation’s onshore lands so there ought to be thousands of acres of public land suitable for wind and solar farms and geothermal installations. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, manages just over 258 million acres, much of it in the arid West. Surely there are many suitable alternative energy sites on just those acres, let alone on the 193 million acres of forest and grassland managed by the National Forest Service. In fact, there are many such sites. The question is not whether there are suitable lands but whether current policies will allow them to be developed.

A President may order agencies to expedite review of an EIS or EA but cannot allow the agencies to not require them, even for “clean” energy proposals. The result is that just as there were few actual “shovel ready” projects that could be implemented when the Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there are few energy sites of any kind on the public lands that can be developed easily or quickly or maybe ever, regardless of the wishes of a Congress or President.

We visited a geothermal plant in Utah and discovered an eye-opening example of the effects of federal regulations. The plant was built on private property in Utah’s west desert where the checkerboard pattern of land ownership exists (federal, state, and private lands are interspersed in a checkerboard pattern based on section lines). The footprint for the project was a few hundred acres and when we were with the plant manager on top of the cooling tower we noticed that the transmission lines connecting the plant to the grid zigged and zagged, making abrupt right and left turns. The plant manager explained that the lines followed section lines, moving along private and state lands but avoiding any of the sections owned by the federal government (BLM in this case). His explanation was that the permitting process was too costly and time consuming for the company to cross any federal land. And this was for a federally subsidized geothermal plant.

NEPA rules do not generally apply to plants on private lands, but even those projects must meet Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act requirements, they must mitigate any wetland losses, any effects on cultural or historical sites must be controlled, and state and local land use rules must be met.