Story by German Lopez | New York Times | With its open plains and thousands of miles of wheat fields, Kansas is one of the windiest states in the U.S. That makes it a great place for turbine projects that capture the wind and convert it into electricity. But too few people live there to use all that clean energy power.
So in 2010, developers started planning a large power-line project connecting Kansas with Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. They wanted to move the clean energy generated in Kansas, from both wind turbines and solar panels to states with much bigger populations. That would let more communities replace planet-warming fossil fuels that have contributed to the kinds of wildfires and unhealthy air that have blanketed large swaths of North America this week.
Thirteen years later, however, full construction has not yet started on the project, known as the Grain Belt Express. Why? Because in addition to federal permission, the project needs approval from every local and state jurisdiction it passes through. And at different times since 2010, at least one agency has resisted it.
The Grain Belt Express is an example of a broader problem. America’s electrical grid is highly fragmented, as my colleagues Nadja Popovich and Brad Plumer explain in a story that’s just published. That decentralization makes it hard to coordinate the large, interstate projects needed to connect clean energy to the grid.
One way to get at that problem is to do what experts call permitting reform. The issue has recently gained national traction, and President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, discussed it during debt-limit negotiations last month. Local and state governments are considering changes, too.
The goal is to streamline the approval process for energy projects so they can avoid the fate of the Grain Belt Express. As long as such projects languish, Americans will keep using existing coal, oil, and gas infrastructure for their energy needs.
A building challenge
Romany Webb, a climate law expert at Columbia University, put the problem in simple terms: “To mitigate climate change effectively, we’re going to need to build a lot of new stuff. And in order to do that quickly, we need to think about legal reforms.”
Much of the money for clean energy is already there. Last year, Congress approved hundreds of billions of dollars for solar panels, wind turbines, nuclear plants, and other projects to tackle climate change. The next hurdle for those projects will not be money; it will be obtaining permits from all levels of government.
The climate funding could help America make a serious dent in its contribution to climate change, Princeton University researchers found. But about half the projected impact will be lost if the country does not speed up the building of large power lines, like the Grain Belt Express.
The problem is not just about power lines. The permitting process and other legal challenges are blocking hundreds of renewable-energy projects, including solar power plants and wind farms, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Communities have various reasons for blocking these projects. Landowners might worry about the government seizing their land. Power lines, wind turbines and solar panels can be eyesores in places that rely on beautiful vistas for tourism. Such projects can damage the environment by displacing wildlife or cutting down trees.
Some critics argue that speeding up permits could also make it easier to build coal, oil, and gas infrastructure. Indeed, this is one reason that reform has bipartisan support: Democrats largely want advances for clean energy, and Republicans largely want a boost to oil and gas production.
The criticisms have made it difficult for lawmakers to agree on what an overhaul should look like. So despite bipartisan support, Biden and McCarthy agreed to only minor changes, to speed up environmental reviews, in last week’s debt deal. They promised to come back to permitting reform in future discussions. Meanwhile, some states, like California, want to limit legal challenges that hold up projects.
The case for a permitting overhaul is that the current system has gone too far. Existing policies have helped protect the environment, landowners and tourism. But they have also become a burden that slows projects far longer than is necessary to ensure safeguards. Reform, then, would be about finding a better balance.
And though changes could allow more fossil fuel projects, they would probably enable far more clean energy projects, experts say. With public attention to climate change, technological breakthroughs and hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending, clean energy is expected to become cheaper and more competitive than fossil fuels. So developers will be much more likely to build a clean energy project than a fossil fuel one — if they can get the permits.
Some fossil-fuel projects already go through a streamlined federal process. In that sense, reform could give clean energy projects the same chance.
For more information:
⋅America’s electrical grid operates more like “balkanized fiefdoms” than a truly connected, national system, one expert told Nadja and Brad. Read their story, with maps breaking down what needs to change.
⋅Progressives should rally around permitting reform to address climate change, David Wallace-Wells argued in Times Opinion.
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