Solar panels
Credit: Markus Spiske / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by McKenzie Fowler. Fowler is a principal analyst at Edison Energy studying long-term energy market fundamentals and a 2022 fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

The U.S. has placed the burden of our fossil-based energy system predominantly on the backs of low-income communities of color. While these communities have suffered economic, social, and health tragedies, much of the country has benefitted from reliable and affordable energy access.

In 2008, Kingston, Tennessee, experienced a coal ash spill that left clean-up crews to suffer the rest of their lives with cancer. And in 2010, Uniontown, Alabama — a predominantly low-income Black community — was “gifted” 4 million cubic yards of coal ash from the spill by the Tennessee Valley Authority — with no protections. These are among the many examples that highlight the fact that this country has not prioritized equity across the distribution of burdens and benefits of our energy system.

Today, as we stand on the cusp of the transition to a low-carbon energy economy, we must be sure that we don’t repeat the same mistakes while building our clean energy future.

A rural town in upstate New York serves as an example of how community engagement can make or break a project.

Copake, a hamlet of roughly 3,000 affluent residents, was poised to run the 60 MW Shepherd’s Run solar farm out of town due to concerns around property devaluation, environmental hazards, and the impacts on community viewsheds.

The project developer, who had already gone through the necessary environmental and feasibility studies, was under the impression that the project was dead — until a group of locals decided to get involved.

These locals, who were invested in tackling climate change and the transition to a clean energy economy, worked together with other residents to bring a proposal to the developer that would maintain the project size while remedying more of the community’s concerns, including landscaping to shield the public view of the panels, public bike paths, animal grazing space, and a solar array for the public high school aimed at eventually charging electric school buses.

The developer and community were able to negotiate in good faith, the community felt heard, and Shepherd’s Run solar is approved to come online in 2024. If an equitable clean energy future is to be a reality, Copake should serve as a model for bringing clean energy projects to fruition.

It is important to note, however, that not all communities impacted by clean energy development will have the same economic opportunities to “force the hand” of developers as the residents of Copake were able to do. In many cases, these projects have never come to fruition, or impacted communities have borne the burden for everyone else. We must ensure that these communities are true partners in the development process.

Overhauling the permitting process

Industrialization has resulted in drastically changing global weather patterns — and at an alarming rate. This year alone, the U.S. and South Africa have experienced record-breaking floods, California continues to face devastating wildfires, extreme drought conditions in the southwest have sucked Lake Mead and Lake Powell to record low levels, Germany and Mexico have witnessed intense hail storms, and heat waves have hit nearly every continent. Indeed, the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization now calls this “the new normal.”

If society is to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, decarbonization must happen quickly. If we seek a better, more resilient future, then decarbonization must be done equitably. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 will help us get part of the way there — particularly with the expansion of clean energy tax credits, which will drive renewable energy capacity while creating new clean energy jobs. However, the IRA does not address the issue of equitable development. While roadblocks must be removed to hasten the pace of decarbonization, this overhaul must not harm community involvement in the process.

A recently proposed permitting reform bill from Sen. Joe Manchin aimed to streamline environmental permitting for major energy projects — both clean and dirty — by including two-year maximum environmental reviews through the National Environmental Policy Act.

While permitting reform is badly needed, the language in this bill did not support an equitable energy transition. Instead, it would have expedited the permitting of new fossil fuel infrastructure, including Manchin’s Mountain Valley Pipeline, which has been in permitting limbo after years of court challenges. The bill would also have set a 180-day deadline for any court challenges to the proposed project. Luckily, the half-baked bill was not pushed through, allowing us room to improve the language in order to fortify the permitting process rather than weaken it.

Given the scale of clean energy investment needed to meet climate targets along with the spatial intensity of clean energy, we must consider the idea of introducing economic and societal impact studies, along with environmental impact studies. Had these studies been done in Kingston or Uniontown, perhaps those communities would not have suffered the tragedies they’ve endured. Had they been done in Copake, perhaps Shepherd’s Run never would have been on the brink of defeat.

Federal, regional, and state agencies should receive further investment for their permitting offices with particular investment to create new community outreach divisions aimed at permitting just and equitable projects. These organizations are not equipped to handle energy justice issues, as their scope has historically been limited to reflect the climate crisis we are in today. This new investment could include hiring experts in energy justice along with the creation of community engagement committees in which the public can have direct input into the process.

Local communities, whose town or city governments must also provide projects with land use permits, should be consulted early in the development process to understand project impacts. If concerns are corrected and project benefits fully communicated, the project is much more likely to be successful. When communities are included in the conversation from the beginning — rather than informed when it is too late to be heard — we have a much better chance of achieving our collective clean energy goals. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to create an inclusive energy transition — let’s be sure we meet the moment.