It can take up to 10 years for renewable energy stations to be approved.
If everything goes to plan, construction on the second-biggest wind energy project on the planet will start in the second half of 2023.
The SunZia Wind and Transmission project ambitiously combines a 3.5-gigawatt wind farm in New Mexico with 500 miles of transmission lines to transport that energy to Arizona. It's a critical undertaking in the US, a country in dire need of more renewable energy and an expanded grid.
But the road to construction has been arduous. The first permits for the project were submitted 14 years ago in 2009, laying bare an urgent problem. Part of the reason there aren't more projects like SunZia is the time it takes to get clearance to build green energy infrastructure.
The Biden administration has proposed an admirable goal of decarbonizing the grid by 2035, which would require a fivefold increase in renewables. The government will funnel historic amounts of money into green energy, over $400 billion via the Inflation Reduction Act alone, to achieve that goal. Yet the glacial pace with which energy projects move threatens the objective. Wind and solar farms, geothermal power plants and hydroelectric dams take between five and 15 years to get construction authorization.
At the center of the issue is the National Environmental Protection Act, which requires companies to perform environmental assessments of their energy projects to ensure the preservation of local ecology. This process is necessary, but some argue that it's bloated.
The median timespan for NEPA reviews is between four and six years, says Rayan Sud of the Brookings Institute's Center for Regulation and Markets. SunZia's 14-year travail is on the extreme end, but Sud said it's not highly unusual for environmental assessments to take 10 years. Then, and only then, can the building start.
And that can be where the real problems begin, says Hunter Armistead, CEO of Pattern Energy, the company now helming SunZia. NEPA allows local groups to challenge the government's decision to grant permits, which can delay the construction process further.
"It effectively keeps adding more and more requirements," Armistead said.
Some challenges to clean energy projects are done out of blatant self-interest — for instance, objecting to wind turbines deflating property values by ruining an ocean view. In other cases, groups of "concerned locals" are revealed to be backed by the fossil fuel industry. But often those fighting back against green energy projects are genuinely concerned about fauna and flora.
At odds are two different strands of environmentalism. Proponents of a green revolution want to preserve the planet by mitigating global warming. That requires massive amounts of new renwable energy, the construction of which is often opposed by people trying to protect wildlife and vulnerable ecosystems.
The current status quo was put in place by President Richard Nixon, a rather unlikely environmental conservationist. Alongside the NEPA, his administration signed legislation that set standards for air quality, regulated pollutants released into the ocean and protected endangered animals.
While these laws can make greenlighting new renewable energy projects difficult, they have been necessary safeguards for the environment.
Lisa Frank, head of advocacy at Environment America, points to the example of Minnesota's Boundary Waters, invaluable land that's home to beavers, timber wolves, moose and over 240 other animal species. The Forest Service had planned to permit private logging in the early '70s before an environmental assessment showed such an operation would have ruined the ecology. It was an early example of NEPA in action.
Forty years later, in 2022, the same process saved the Boundary Waters from a planned nickel mining operation. It's one of countless ecologies NEPA and its sister laws have saved.
"It definitely sometimes can take a long time to get projects built," Frank said, "but that alone doesn't indicate there's something wrong with the process." She believes bigger barriers to green energy construction include subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and resistance from utilities uneager to see the cost of electricity reduced.
Pattern Energy's Armistead agrees that the NEPA is crucial and says that many local objections to power projects are justified. The issue is over how slow government turnaround often is. The Bureau of Land Management took six years to issue its first permit for the SunZia project. When a permit is rescinded based on community pushback, it can take months or years to be regranted, even after those concerns are ameliorated.
"One of the core issues we've been hoping to get more clarity on is what actually has to be done [to obtain a permit], and that there are specific turnaround times and response times from the government so you don't end up in a long, protracted wait," Armistead said.
It's not even that NEPA rules need to be relaxed, Armistead said. It's OK for a project to be rejected, but it's the unproductive waiting period that hurts. "A lot of our projects, we've looked around and decided either for species or permitting reasons, this isn't the place to develop," he said. "If you're going to fail, you'd much rather fail quickly."
The environmental laws put in place by the Nixon administration responded to growing environmental sentiment in the '60s and '70s. But that was before climate change became an urgent concern. Fifty years later, environmentalism is at war with itself. On one side are conservationists, whose main goal is to preserve local ecologies. On the other are activists chiefly concerned with stopping human-made climate change.
"It's a genuinely hard question," said Sanjay Patnaik, director of the Center for Regulation and Markets. "In the macro, we know we need to address [both] climate change and biodiversity. In the micro, which interest wins out in a given place?"
This battle is currently being fought near Martha's Vineyard, where an offshore wind farm called Vineyard Wind is intended to supply electricity to 400,000 Massachusetts homes. It's a crucial part of the state's pledge to reach net zero by 2050, and the federal government's plan to have 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2030 (up from 42 megawatts in 2021). The Biden administration greenlit the project after it had been previously stalled by the Trump administration.
Since then, Vineyard Wind has been sued by a group alleging the turbines will hamper the hauls of local fisheries, as well as by local citizens who say the project could affect endangered whales. It's typical of resistance to offshore wind, something Patnaik says is a US phenomenon. "In Europe, you see much less of that," he said. As of 2021, Europe had over 30 times more offshore wind capacity than the US.
In the US, many jurisdictions see local opposition by wealthy homeowners and landowners. "If you look at the Eastern Seaboard for instance, a lot of these properties are owned by really rich people, and they don't want an impediment to their view," Patnaik said. Wind farms are easy targets to challenge because they take up more space than any other type of energy source — and because they have a tendency to "ruin" otherwise pristine vistas.
Sud notes an additional hardship for offshore wind projects: Many ships that transport material from a state's shore into national waters require the approval of the EPA, something he says can take two years alone.
Expanding wind power and other renewable energy sources is just one part of the equation. Renewable energy is often produced in remote locations and needs to be transported to dense population centers. At the same time, the grid needs more electricity for services currently powered by fossil fuels, like heating and transport. In short, we'll need more transmission lines.
"You have three almost nonconnected grids in the US," Sud explained. "You've got a Western interconnection, an Eastern interconnection and then Texas. Only very, very small amounts of power flow between these three. … If you just put one or two transmission lines that connect East and West — or Texas and the East, or Texas and the West — that would be a huge deal."
Unfortunately, transmission lines can be more troublesome to erect than wind turbines. Unlike gas pipelines, which can largely be approved by a federal body, transmission lines require approval from every jurisdiction they cross. That means not just states, but often counties too, ensuring a lengthy approval process. One 300-mile transmission project seeking to connect Oregon and Idaho is still in regulatory limbo, despite being proposed in 2007.
Permitting reform has caught the attention of lawmakers. Last year, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin proposed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2022, a bill seeking to reduce timelines for building critical infrastructure down to three years or less from the current five to 10 years (or more).
It was a polarizing bill for a polarizing issue. Some Congressional Democrats voted it down because it weakened environmental protections, said Patnaik, while many Republicans rejected it because Manchin, a Democrat, voted for Biden's Inflation Reduction Act.
Environment America's Lisa Frank counts herself as someone glad to see the bill fail, arguing that poor legislation seeking to reform permits could do more harm than good.
"Those proposals are written assuming that building more projects faster is generally in the public interest and anything that slows stuff down is bad," she said. "Most projects undergoing NEPA review currently are still fossil fuel projects. Weakening the NEPA is at least in the near term going to have more benefit to fossil fuels than clean."
Patnaik and Sud would like the federal government to enact "proactive permitting." They advocate creating maps showing areas of low environmental sensitivity, where sites can be preapproved for certain types of energy production.
Pattern Energy's Armistead hopes that megaprojects like SunZia can lay a blueprint for others by highlighting what problems are likely to come up, what solutions are possible and how local communities can be won over.
"These are really hard things to do, but we need more big, hard things to get done," he said. "If our world's going to decarbonize, it's hard to do it in small pieces."
The blueprint is still being drawn. In January, New Mexico gave SunZia the greenlight, with construction hoped to kickoff in April. Later that month, however, an Arizona resident filed a lawsuit arguing that the project would imperil the San Pedro River's fish, birds and mammals.
Despite the disruption, construction should start later this year, Armistead said.