Renewable energy facilities can also destroy land held sacred by Native American tribes or disrupt treasured views.
The potential harms from solar and wind energy pale in comparison to the dangers of oil and gas drilling and other fossil fuel projects, which unlike renewable energy can expose nearby residents to cancer-linked chemicals and other toxins. The low-income communities of color that have born the brunt of fossil fuel pollution are also especially vulnerable to climate change consequences.
But taking steps to make sure solar and wind farms in vulnerable communities don’t worsen ongoing injustices is important, O’Shaughnessy said. And it’s a priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal of delivering 40% of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged neighborhoods — an initiative known as Justice40.
“There will be projects that move forward despite some degree of local opposition. That’s inevitable,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It comes back to making sure there are participation processes in place to do this as fairly and equitably as possible.”
They key question is whether enough clean energy can still be built fast enough to avert climate catastrophe.
Susskind, the MIT researcher, thinks it’s doable. He said renewable energy companies should be willing to redesign their projects to avoid sensitive lands and to offer financial compensation to people or businesses who feel they’re still being harmed.
“More stuff would get built faster,” he said.
The Solar Energy Industries Assn., an influential national trade group, agrees with that assessment.
Ben Norris, the group’s director of environmental policy, said in an interview that engaging with communities early — and giving them a real opportunity to be heard — is “the hallmark of good project development.” He said it’s an area where the solar industry is working to improve, in part through the Stanford initiative — and the Senate deal makes it more important than ever.
“This is such a historic opportunity that we’re on the cusp of that we need to get it right,” Norris said.
Not everything in the Senate bill has been embraced by climate activists.
To win Manchin’s support, Schumer included provisions that require continued oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore, which activists have been fighting to shut down for years. Democratic leaders also agreed to support legislation designed to speed up permitting for all kinds of energy projects — including climate-disrupting natural gas pipelines and gas export terminals.
Rendering of the proposed liquefied natural gas expansion at the Energia Costa Azul facility near Ensenada, Mexico. The plant is operated by IEnova, a Mexico-based energy company and a subsidiary of San Diego's Sempra Energy.
As far as Energy Innovation is concerned, the bill’s benefits far outweigh its harms. The research firm estimates that for every ton of carbon pollution caused by the fossil fuel leasing mandates, 24 tons of carbon would be avoided by other provisions.
Michael Gerrard, founder of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, also thinks the tradeoffs are worthwhile. The best way to cut down on oil and gas production, he said, is to reduce demand for the fuels — and the Senate bill does that.
The separate permitting bill could also be helpful, Gerrard said, because it could streamline approval of clean energy projects.
“Local opposition has emerged as one of the major inhibitors of [solar and wind farms],” Gerrard said. “Trying to clear away those obstacles is extremely important, even if it is at the price of making it somewhat harder to fight new fossil projects.”
Gerrard pointed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as a possible model for speeding solar and wind development. The law prevented local governments from banning cell towers and required them to approve or reject towers within a few months.
It also prohibited local governments from rejecting cell towers because they emit electromagnetic fields, or EMFs — a type of radiation that has spurred fears of cancer and other health problems, despite a lack of strong evidence to support those fears. Gerrard thinks similar rules could be helpful for solar and wind projects dogged by misinformation over alleged health effects.
“Whether it’s wind farms or vaccines or elections, people don’t always listen to evidence,” he said.
“Going to communities early and trying to engage them — it’s helpful,” he added. “But it’s not a guaranteed silver bullet.”©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.