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Key Regulatory Updates and Market Drivers for Renewable Project Development

DNV’s Environmental and Permitting Services team reflects on renewable industry trends from January-March 2024.

Through our attendance at the 2024 ACP Siting and Permitting conference in Colorado Springs, project development with clients, and industry discussions in workgroups, our experts have highlighted trending topics that will be a key industry focus through 2024 and beyond. The energy and enthusiasm exhibited by the renewable industry during our interactions are notable due to the strong mix of renewable project developers—primarily wind, solar and battery energy storage systems (BESS)—environmental consultants, and U.S. resource agency staff all voicing their perspective on how to site and permit clean power in a way that conserves natural resources and provides for a just and equitable energy transition.

Some of the key trends we saw through our interactions with industry stakeholders were on wildlife, community engagement, and transmission.

Wildlife

The broad array of discussions and perspectives on wildlife shared were from the standpoint of technical advances in environmental data collection and processing. Three important areas frequently discussed were:

  1. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) handling of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
  2. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) update to the Eagle rule
  3. Biodiversity opportunities in solar development

These specific examples are part of the larger trend in wildlife topics with resource agencies and renewable energy development. The noted trend is one of regulatory uncertainty in the face of changing science and wildlife data. While resource agencies are adjusting policy (such as BLM Resource Management Plans and the USFWS Eagle rule), there is a large degree of uncertainty for the industry requiring management with respect to investment and development plans.

BLM – Greater sage-grouse

Greater sage grouse

Source: USFWS public domain image

BLM is looking at amending their 2015 Resource Management Plans (RMPs) governing their land to account for updated scientific information about habitat for the greater-sage grouse. Currently the BLM is in the scoping phase for the NEPA associated with the RMP update, with the primary question being whether BLM will allow wind and solar development in sage-grouse habitat.

Developers hope additional detailed scientific data can provide more accurate delineation of sage-grouse sensitive habitat and reduce the areas where renewable development would be prohibited under existing RMPs. Key recommendations for the industry are:

  • Provide mitigation upfront where impacts are unavoidable based on best available science
  • Monitor project impacts
  • Mitigate for additional impacts (LaBeau & al., 2024).

At the ACP Siting and Permitting Conference there was a call to action for the industry to strategically plan for inevitable situations where proponent driven mitigation will be necessary. By proactively planning and advancing these mitigation scenarios, industry can help reduce uncertainty and help conserve the species while getting projects approved and built.

USFWS – Eagle rule

Eagle

Source: USFWS public domain image

USFWS revisions to the regulations for the issuance of permits for take of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), and the removal of or disturbance to eagle nests has been an item of note. The revisions to the final eagle rule were published on 12 February 2024 and the rule took effect on 12 April 2024. The USFWS states “the purpose of these revisions is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of permitting, improve clarity for the regulated community, and increase the conservation benefit for eagles” (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 12 February 2024). The changes are based on industry and stakeholder feedback , and the new regulations largely removed requirements for third-party monitoring under the general permit framework.

The primary takeaway from USFWS changes to the Eagle rule relate to the process by which take permits are issued and include the following:

  • Creation of a general permit framework for projects that meet specific criteria and a specific permit (formerly known as an individual permit) framework for projects that are not eligible for general permits
  • A self-certification registration on the USFWS portal for projects pursuing a general permit
  • General permits cover take of both eagle species, while permits for nest disturbance or removal are for bald eagle only
  • Projects not eligible for the general permit framework or projects seeking a permit for removal of or disturbance to golden eagle nests may pursue a specific permit. There are three new tiers under the specific permit framework to determine a project’s processing speed and cost.

These changes should provide additional certainty to project developers. In the coming months and years, the details of how the rule is interpreted and implemented at the regional or field office level will determine its true efficacy.

Biodiversity and Solar Development

A growing environmental topic relates to opportunities to improve biodiversity through vegetation management on solar farms. The overall concept is that solar developments provide an opportunity to manage the land under and around the solar panels to improve biodiversity, species composition (both plant and animal), and ecosystem function through a proactive management plan approach. This often takes to form of pollinator friendly initiatives, such as the state of Virginia’s Pollinator Smart program, partnered with the involvement of broader programs focused on avian species richness or other wildlife and environmental metrics.

An example can be found with Lightsource bp’s initiative launched in 2024 called Biodiversity Net Gain. This corporate framework for Lightsource bp’s projects is a global approach implemented regionally based on eco-region characteristics. This framework measures progress toward program goals for the ecological health of habitats in and around solar developments. Several other solar developers are advancing pollinator-friendly projects throughout the U.S. including Cypress Creek Renewables, Encore Renewable Energy, and many others.

The overarching goal of these programs is to use solar and energy infrastructure development as a pathway to improve resilience and ecosystem function. This is a newer perspective and paradigm now in energy development, where the industry is providing tangible benefits through their project development, simultaneously reducing execution risk.

Community Engagement

The focus on project development in the western U.S. has arisen in several discussions centered around tribal communities with a focus on:

  1. Supporting the needs of the communities
  2. Providing a pathway for under-resourced communities to develop critical energy infrastructure

Tribal programs

Several tribal programs that demonstrate the values of empowerment, generosity, conservation, community, and humility have been in several discussions. Key goals for these programs include a just transition to provide sovereignty, environmental, economic, and social benefits to Tribal Communities through energy infrastructure development (Martin, 2024). One highlighted program, grid alternatives, advances a mission to build community-powered solutions to advance economic and environmental justice through renewable energy. The programs include rooftop solar and battery storage solutions for residences in tribal country.

These programs have grown in importance during the project development phase as an opportunity for industry growth to provide additional benefits to under-resourced communities.

Community engagement and social license

Another aspect of community engagement has been the evolving necessity for renewable energy projects to earn a “social license” for their projects through community engagement. Many developers and consultants have compared notes on successful approaches to community engagement and the challenges that come with public opposition to energy projects. One emerging theme in this regard is the challenge facing BESS projects due to a public worried about battery fires, toxic releases, and soil contamination.

Consensus amongst many renewable industry leaders is that all projects need community engagement from the initial stages of development to truly engage and collaborate with the public. There should be a shift in the industry to move past the old paradigm of public education, where projects typically came to public meetings to educate the public to “get on board” with their project. Now, especially through justice initiatives like Community Benefits Packages (CBPs) which are legally binding agreements between communities and project developers, communities can become part of the solutions offered by the renewable energy industry.

Transmission

Long distance transmission is essential to the energy transition. During ACP Siting and Permitting’s session “Crossing-Borders” the new mantra “no transition without transmission” was communicated and picked up across the industry. This has been a continual hot topic as transmission development presents both an opportunity and bottleneck to the renewable generation market.

Stakeholder Engagement
There is a unique importance stakeholder engagement holds for inter-regional and cross border transmission line projects. These projects often span communities and entire states to deliver power to distant load centers. This “pass through” nature can make host communities question the benefits of the project and often oppose the project as a result. Questions around the benefits has fuelled a growing evolution in community engagement. These larger, inter-regional projects are now operating community engagement programs partially to gain the social license needed to build these projects, along with formally developing community benefits programs, like the Community Investment Program (CIP) on Grid United’s North Plains Connector project.

This program, like many other community benefits programs currently being proposed for large transmission developments, aims to support host communities in a partnership to serve the community’s needs. Grid United’s CIP supplies grants to nonprofit or local government applicants within the host communities whose projects would advance several goals addressing community issues or opportunities. These types of programs are relatively new in the transmission project development realm. The benefits being sought are:

  • Enable communities to benefit from developments
  • Value captured through the programs that large scale energy infrastructure development can bring.

As the results of these programs materialize, the industry recognizes the outcome often varies by project and location. Regardless of the variability, there is a general sense of excitement around the benefits being captured by communities while simultaneously reducing the risk of project opposition.

Parting ACP thoughts

While all of the ACP conference sessions were extremely informative and engaging, what also caught my eye was what wasn’t on the agenda. There were no sessions and not much discussion around costs, financing, or commercialization of projects, which are many of the challenges projects currently face. That absence may be due to this being a siting conference, but with the commercial headwinds that many energy projects are facing, it was notable that markets were not discussed even through the lens of siting, environmental and permitting cost. That could be because onshore utility-scale renewables have a lower Levelized Cost of Energy than other generation and transmission solutions (U.S. Department of Energy, 2023) and, therefore, are facing a more favorable market than offshore projects. But I still think that project costs need to be openly discussed when offering presentations on mitigation, additional data collection requirements, and community benefit packages. How much do these trends affect project finance and the ability to successfully get projects to financial close? Because until these projects are inked and energized, the climate future we are seeking to create will remain too far down the road.

Q1 Conclusions

The first quarter of 2024 has been brimming with interesting topics and continual engagement from professionals all focused on solving some of the most challenging issues our industry faces. A major question I leave with is: what is the difference between the polices being discussed and implemented and the realities of project development and energization? The question of policy versus reality cuts across almost all industry topics. The USFWS’s Eagle rule update is supposed to make the process streamlined for industry. The BLM update of their RMPs to integrate industry provided scientific data should reduce risk to developers. Community engagement efforts should help improve communities and reduce project opposition. All these policies and initiatives have the intent to help advance the renewable energy transition. Ultimately, I believe the market, regional regulatory implementation, and levels of community engagement will dictate the level of success of these efforts.

A parting thought through all of DNV’s 2024 Q1 engagements is that the renewables sector includes professionals across the board who are very committed to the vision and mission of their respective organizations . Whether they work in industry, government agency, or non-profit, everyone operating in this space believes deeply in the work they are doing. It is rewarding and affirming to be collectively working with a diverse group of people who are working with intention to create the future they believe in.


References

LaBeau, C., & al., e. (2024). Uncertainties in siting and Mitigation Grouse and Renewables. Washington DC: American Clean Power.

Martin, T. C. (2024). Building Stronger Relationships with Tribal Communities. American Clean Power Siting and Permitting Confernece. Colorado Springs: ACP.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (12 February 2024). Federal Register Notice - Permits for Incidental Take of Eagles and Eagle Nests. 89 FR 9920. Docket No. FWS-HQ-MB-2020-0023. Washington DC: Federal Register.

US Department of Energy. (2023). Land-Based Wind Market Report. Berkely: US Department of Energy.

US Department of Energy. (2023). Utility-Scale Solar, 2023 Edition. Berkely: US Department of Energy.

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Daniel Belin

Daniel Belin

Environmental and Permitting