We Have One Shot At Building A Cleaner Electric Grid – Let’s Do It Right – Forbes

The U.S. has set an ambitious climate goal: to slash greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. Achieving this goal means building out clean energy infrastructure, an undertaking similar in scale to when the interstate highway system was first built back in the 1950s. But unlike when we built the highway, we have the pressure of a time constraint to hit our goal. Already we’re seeing our aging electric grid buckling under the strain of extreme weather events. Building a cleaner grid will help reduce the pollution that’s driving increases in extreme weather, while also improving efficiencies, lowering costs for consumers, and benefiting our environment. Not doing it right could compromise these benefits and slow down the transition – a delay we cannot afford.
The sun sets behind electric power lines as the California Independent System Operator announced a … [+] statewide electricity Flex Alert urging conservation to avoid blackouts in Redondo Beach, California on August 31, 2022. Californians were told August 31, 2022 not to charge their electric vehicles during peak hours, just days after the state said it would stop selling gas-powered cars, as the aging electricity grid struggles with a fearsome heatwave. Temperatures as high as 112 degrees Fahrenheit (44 degrees Celsius) were forecast in some Los Angeles suburbs as a huge heat dome bakes a swathe of the western United States. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
Fortunately, there’s good news. The Nature Conservancy recently released its national Power of Place report, which found that with careful and coordinated planning, the right incentives, and robust community engagement, the U.S. can build the clean energy infrastructure needed for economy-wide, net-zero emission by 2050 while avoiding most impacts to sensitive natural and working lands.
There are examples of how building renewables can be done right, and guidance to help those looking to do the same. Leading corporations have been a major driver in procuring renewable energy not only to meet climate goals, but also to support sustainability targets and demonstrate their commitment to being good neighbors. A consortium of companies, along with The Nature Conservancy, have come together through the Clean Energy Buyers Alliance to adopt principles for purpose-driven energy procurement. And companies, such as the electric car manufacturer, Rivian, are putting these principles into practice.
Rivian, BrightNight, and The Nature Conservancy recently announced the Starfire Renewable Power Project, which is planned to go online in 2027. Sited on one of the biggest coal mining operations in the country, the solar array will transform the mine into the largest renewable power project in Kentucky. Once complete, it will produce enough electricity to power over 170,000 households per year. It furthers the state’s robust energy legacy while delivering benefits for climate, conservation, and communities- known as the “3Cs.” Construction will begin in 2025, and in the meantime the developer will be engaging extensively with the local community and learning how to shape the project in accordance with their values. The Nature Conservancy and Rivian have developed a case study and toolkit to help other businesses replicate projects that meet climate, conservation, and community goals.
Rivian R1T electric vehicle (EV) pickup trucks on the assembly line at the company’s manufacturing … [+] facility in Normal, Illinois, US., on Monday, April 11, 2022. Photographer: Jamie Kelter Davis/Bloomberg
Starfire isn’t the only example of how intentionally locating clean energy can benefit nature and communities. In 2019, The Nature Conservancy acquired The Cumberland Forest Project, a 253,000 acre stretch of land across Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee in the Central Appalachian Mountains. As one of the largest-ever conservation efforts in the Eastern U.S., The Nature Conservancy is sustainably managing the forests to store carbon while protecting the migratory routes that are important to diverse wildlife. In 2022, the amount of carbon sequestered was equivalent to taking over 42,000 cars off the road. The Nature Conservancy is also advancing seven utility-scale solar projects on mined lands located on the Cumberland Forest Project site. The potential solar sites include approximately 700 acres of previously disturbed lands and could generate enough power to provide electricity to 22,800 homes.
These projects are hopeful signs, but if we want to see them become more than showcases, we need new state and federal policies that will drive better planning and make it faster, easier, and cheaper to develop projects like these. Examples of the types of planning and policies include:
1. Plan clean energy projects with people and nature in mind at all levels of the planning process.
Much of the planning of where clean energy projects should be sited happens at the state and local levels. Decision makers at both of those levels need to have roadmaps that lay out a long-term vision, including the mix of clean energy technologies that will be required, the most effective land-saving strategies, and the amount and type of investments that need to be made in transmission infrastructure. Having the planning process be public, inclusive, and participatory for frontline communities is vital to ensuring that people and nature are accounted for during decision-making.
2. Ensure community engagement and equitable benefit sharing.
Clean energy projects are often located in rural communities far from the electricity end-use consumers. However, there are ways to ensure these communities also benefit. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $760 million in grants to support economic development initiatives in communities affected by transmission projects. States can also incentivize developers to reach out to communities early and contract with local companies for project development, operation, and maintenance, fostering local engagement and economic growth.
3. Adopt incentives to encourage land-saving approaches on croplands.
States as diverse as Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada, and West Virginia, have all adopted incentives for deploying renewable energy on degraded lands, such as mine lands, landfills, and brownfields. Other states have looked to incentivize the development of solar on agricultural lands in a manner that allows for agricultural production to continue under the panels, a practice known as “agrivoltaics.” The Farm Bill, set to be reauthorized this year by Congress, provides an immediate opportunity to further incentivize the practice.
4. Prioritize transmission investments in inter-regional connections and existing infrastructure.
To carry new electricity to where it’s needed, the U.S. will have to expand transmission infrastructure – the wires and towers – by up to 3.5 times the amount we have today. By upgrading the infrastructure we already have in place and adding new transmission projects where rights of way already exist, this infrastructure can be built faster and potentially at a lower cost. Federal and state regulators can expedite the review of these types of projects that have lower impacts on their surrounding land.
HOUSTON, TEXAS – Service technicians work to install transmission towers at the CenterPoint Energy … [+] power plant on June 10, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Power demand in Texas is expected to set new all-time highs as heatwaves surge to levels rarely seen outside of summer, and economic growth contributes to higher usage in homes and businesses. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Getting to net-zero by 2050 while preserving ecosystems and enhancing the lives of millions of Americans is achievable. Policymakers, industry leaders, and government officials at all levels must collaborate and invest in a generational clean energy transition that safeguards natural lands, communities, and tackles climate change. With careful planning, the American people can build a grid that supports a sustainable, equitable, and carbon-free future.

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