Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part VI: The Cape Wind Project as a Lesson in Cultural Resource Protection

By Andrea Lang Clifford, Policy Analyst

In a lot of ways, tribes should embrace renewable energy both to combat the devastating effects of climate change and to boost tribal economies. Occasionally, however, renewable energy development raises concerns about preservation of important tribal cultural resources. Where such conflicts come up in the context of a federal agency decision (such as whether to grant a federal permit or lease federal land), agencies must comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which I explained in detail in the last post in this series. To review, the NHPA requires federal agencies to consult with interested parties–including tribes–regarding the effects of federally approved or developed projects on historic and cultural property. The final two posts of this blog series on “Tribes & Renewables” will explore two examples of how federal agencies have implemented the NHPA for proposed renewable energy projects. Today’s post explores tribal cultural resource protection issues that arose in the Cape Wind Project and explains how NHPA implementation for Cape Wind can serve as a lesson to federal agencies in the future. 

The Cape Wind Project and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head

The Cape Wind Project is a proposed offshore wind farm for the Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts. As proposed, the project would include 130 turbines over a 25-square mile area, with a total capacity of 468 MW. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency responsible for leasing and permitting the project, it would supply up to 75% of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket’s electricity. 

Credit: BOEM
Among the many groups that have opposed Cape Wind for the past 15 years is the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. “Wampanoag” literally means “People of the First Light,” and part of the tribe’s religious practice involves a dawn ceremony with a view of the sunrise over the Sound. In addition, the area the Sound occupies used to be dry land, and the tribe believes that archeological remains are present in the bed of the Sound. 

Because BOEM needed to issue a lease and federal permits for the project to move forward, the Cape Wind Project triggered the NHPA section 106 consultation requirements. As the last post in this series explained, that process requires federal agencies to consult with tribes to assess and resolve adverse effects of the project, although it does not direct the agency to protect cultural resources. 

Unfortunately, in the case of the Cape Wind Project, BOEM simply waited too long to begin consulting with the Wampanoag Tribe about the effects of the project on the tribe’s cultural resources. The tribe was naturally concerned that the large number of 440 foot turbine blades would obstruct culturally significant views of the Sound and that construction of the project would disturb archeological remains in the bed of the Sound. However, BOEM did not begin the process of identifying and resolving these potentially adverse effects until seven years after the project had been proposed and after the details of the project had already essentially been decided. This delay meant BOEM could not consider alternative sites when it began consultation, and it resulted in BOEM recommending mitigation measures that included half-measures such as painting the turbines an off-white color to help them blend into the background, a solution completely untenable for the tribe. 

According to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (Council), BOEM’s NHPA consultation on the Cape Wind Project was “tentative, inconsistent, and late,” and as a result, it did not adequately consider ways to mitigate the project’s effects. Importantly, the Council noted that “the development of renewable energy projects is not inherently incompatible with protection of historic resources, so long as full consideration is given to historic properties early in the identification of potential locations [and that] selection of nearby alternatives might result in far fewer adverse effects…” However, in the case of Cape Wind, BOEM did not actually give full consideration.

Cape Wind as a Lesson to Federal Agencies

While it is true that the NHPA is a purely procedural statute that does not mandate substantive protection for cultural resources, that does not mean that federal agencies should treat NHPA consultation as red tape. Consultation under the NHPA is meant to inform decision making, resulting in better substantive results through procedural means. If BOEM had consulted earlier in the Cape Wind project, as the Council recommended, it might have considered alternative nearby sites that would have addressed some of the Wampanoag Tribe’s concerns. 

Credit: PNNL
Besides Cape Wind-specific concerns, agencies should have an interest more generally in ensuring that tribes have a voice and a real seat at the table when it comes to consulting over cultural resource protection. Tribes may begin to view renewable energy projects more skeptically if agencies repeat the late and tentative consultation that occurred in the case of the Cape Wind Project. This would be an unfortunate result, given the amount of federal land in the United States that is rich in renewable energy resources and the likelihood that some of these future projects will raise cultural resource protection concerns. 

To foster a positive relationship with tribes on future renewable energy projects as well as positive results in protecting cultural resources, federal agencies should learn from Cape Wind and ensure that consultation begins early and earnestly. The final post in this series will provide another example of NHPA implementation and suggest more ways federal agencies can ensure that renewable energy projects move forward with minimal conflict.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Bright Future, Part II: Potential Setbacks

By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern

In Part I of this blog series I addressed the changing political climate in the United States and abroad. Between the Clean Power Plan, last year’s climate change conference in Paris, and the ambitious goals set by Canada, Mexico and the US at this year’s North American Leaders’ Summit, world leaders are demonstrating their much needed commitment to a sustainable future in energy.

Part II of this series discusses how powerful forces in the US have shown much resistance to the movement toward renewable energy.

Attacks On Renewable Energy Policy

Fossil fuel and utility companies play a large role in financing attacks on clean energy policies. As clean energy alternatives gain more traction, companies selling coal, oil and gas are doing whatever they can to delay the growth of this mounting competition in the energy marketplace. These sustainable resources are becoming cheaper every year and are expected to continue doing so. As such, some entities view renewable energy as a significant threat to global reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the primary methods used by these fossil fuel proponents is the funding of front groups that serve to add seemingly independent voices to the anti-clean energy platform. One report suggests that these front groups, motivated by financial and political interests, are attacking the practice of net metering and the use of renewable energy standards in order to make switching to renewable energy less affordable and less appealing.

For example, the Edison Electric Institute (a trade association representing all US investor-owned electric companies, i.e. the entire utility industry) launched a campaign in recent years to repeal or weaken net metering laws. EEI issued a report criticizing net metering as “not fair” and arguing that not only do the customers using distributed generation (DG) systems avoid paying for the utility’s power since they produce their own, they also avoid paying for the fixed costs of the grid. These efforts function to spread biased information about the impact of solar on the grid; though EEI correctly pointed out that rooftop solar passes inflated costs onto other ratepayers, it neglects to weigh any associated benefits. For example, recent research by the Brookings Institution found that distributed solar systems (e.g. rooftop solar) and net metering, more often than not, actually provide a net benefit to ratepayers, meaning the benefit to all ratepayers exceeds what solar customers receive in net-metering credits. A report by the Frontier Group and Environment America found that distributed solar offers net benefits to the entire electric grid through reduced capital investment costs, avoided energy costs, and reduced environmental compliance costs.

While regulators and utilities do need to work together to develop strategies to efficiently integrate DG technologies into the grid, instituting a fair utility cost-recovery strategy does not need to simultaneously weaken or eliminate net metering policies. Unfortunately, in 2015 alone, utility interests successfully weakened net metering policies in at least 16 states.
In a developed and educated society, these financially motivated efforts ideally should do no more than delay the inevitable. The shift to renewable energy is a logical and necessary step on the path to mitigating the harm we have caused to this planet and its inhabitants. In

Part III I will discuss various political views on climate change and how those views may shape energy policy in the U.S., especially following the 2016 Presidential election.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Rio 2016 – Good Intentions, Unfulfilled Goals

By Ashlyn White, Policy Intern

Hosting the Olympic Games is a daunting task for any country to take on. Infrastructure improvements, massive building projects, and logistical planning of where everything and everyone are going to go are just a few of the things that need to be worked out during the preparation stages. Another critical component is figuring out how the Games will be powered. Every single stadium, venue, and building within the Olympic Village, along with the International Broadcast Center, need reliable energy to ensure the Games run smoothly. This is in addition to the increased energy needs of the many spectators, which include things like transportation to and from the venues. For Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games have been a source of serious controversy in many areas, including the strains it will have on the country’s energy supply.

Hydropower is the main source of Brazilian electricity and accounts for 70 percent of the country’s production. Unfortunately, Brazil is in the middle of a serious drought, which has impacts on the country’s ability to produce enough hydropower to meet the needs of everyday citizens and will severely strain the grid’s ability to support the Games. The Brazilian energy crisis has led to serious cutbacks, including cutting the power to people’s homes and businesses for extended periods at a time. Still, Brazil’s goal is to keep as much of the Games on the grid as possible to take advantage of the country’s available renewable energy capacity. However, Rio suffers from rolling blackouts as a result of low energy production, and the back-up strategy will rely on diesel-powered generators, as it is too late to build the solar energy infrastructure that was originally planned. Brazil faced similar problems when it hosted the World Cup in 2014, and the government spent $5 billion to subsidize fossil fuel generators as a result.

While Rio is not unique in failing to deliver on its environmental promises compared to previous Olympic host cities, it is certainly disappointing. Rio had promised to host the “Green Games for a Blue Planet” by using clean energy, upgrading low income neighborhoods, preserving natural spaces, and significantly improving public transportation to clear up the streets and control smog. As with many previous Olympic host cities, budget constraints and poor planning are to blame when these ambitious environmental and energy projects get cut. Jay Coakley of the University of Colorado studies the impacts of massive events like the Olympics, and as he explained in an interview with The Atlantic, if money hasn’t been allocated up front, what can happen is a city or region goes so deeply into debt and there’s so little money or energy left to complete those projects.” Rio itself fell victim to this in 2014 when they hosted the World Cup. For example, the committee in charge of organizing the World Cup never broke ground on a proposed high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio that was meant to reduce vehicle emissions, nor did they ever put up the solar panels that were meant to power the various stadiums.

With only a little over a week to go until the Games’ Opening Ceremonies and dozens of very major problems left to be solved, it is clear that whatever renewable energy goals Rio’s Olympic Committee had at the outset will not come to fruition now. Looking ahead, Pyeongchang and Tokyo are looking much more likely to deliver more environmentally friendly Olympic Games that use renewable energy technology. For example, Pyeongchang plans to power their 2018 Winter Olympic Games with 100 percent renewable energy from new and existing power plants that rely on solar and geothermal energy. While this is a lofty goal, they are already well set up to meet it, considering they currently have the capabilities to generate 145 MW out of the 190 MW of capacity that will be needed to power the Games. Further, they have plans to erect a number of wind farms to generate 100 percent renewable energy and to develop their electric transportation infrastructure, all by 2017. Tokyo also has big goals for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and plans to power their Olympic Stadium with solar power, install a rainwater retention system, and build the Olympic Village to utilize renewable energy systems like solar, seawater heat pumps, and biogas power generated from food waste. While there are several years to go between now and the Pyeongchang and Tokyo Games and anything could happen to derail their plans, it seems that both cities have looked to the disappointments of Rio and are being much more proactive in their renewable energy and sustainability goals.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

U.S. Pursues New Energy Solutions in Green Ponds

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

The past few weeks have been exciting for those following the progress of renewable energy in North America. As fellow policy intern, Sage Ertman mentioned in his post this past Monday, the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico met to discuss a renewed commitment to partnership in the pursuit of a green energy future for the continent. Spurred forward by the historical cooperation of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in developing a plan to further integrate and innovate a clean energy future as laid out in North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.

The plan has many ambitious initiatives for cooperation, conservation, and implementation of new technology. One example of the cooperation of the three countries can be seen in their development of cross-border transmission projects. According to the plan, the U.S. will cooperate with its neighbors “to achieve a goal for North America of 50% clean power generation by 2025.” Among the myriad of cooperation in policy and technology is a call for robust innovations in renewable energy technology.

Many innovations are currently underway to advance and diversify the means through which the U.S. can pursue these renewable energy goals. As I covered in my last blog post, there are some exciting innovations outside of what people typically see as the big three for renewable generation – wind, solar, and hydro. Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced they would be pursuing algae as a new source of renewable biofuel. When most of us think of biofuels, especially ethanol, immediately we think of corn. And for good reason: Corn currently accounts for 80 percent of the bio-ethanol produced domestically. Biofuel derived from corn has had a few major disadvantages from its very conception. Corn has traditionally been a source of food and feed for livestock, corn requires the use of arable land, and yields a relatively low amount of fuel.  However, bolstered by the new DOE funding, that may soon change for the better. Algae has a few distinct advantages over corn in terms of producing biofuel.

First, and most obviously, algae is not a source of food in and of itself, so it does not compete with other food sources for terrestrial farming space. Also, it is important to consider the type of land that would be used for algae production. Algae cultivation does not require the use of arable land the way corn does.  That’s not to say that algae farms wouldn’t have a demand for space, they would, but algae-based generation comes second in land-use efficiency, surpassed only by solar arrays. When it comes to biofuel generation, algae could produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than its land-based cousins. According to Florida company Algenol, algae can produce 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre annually, and corn averages around 420 gallons of fuel for the same time period.

Secondly, algae-derived biofuel serves not only as a source of clean energy, but also has the ability to help combat the effects of climate change. Climate change has the potential to cause our already limited supplies of fresh water to decrease. Algae presents an opportunity to help mitigate some of that stress.  As algae grows in salt water it actually provides fresh water. For every one gallon of biofuel, algae would produce 1.4 gallons of freshwater. Corn derived ethanol requires 2.7 gallons of water per gallon of fuel.

Finally, in addition to requiring less land, not competing with the food supply, and providing instead of demanding water for production, algae could help in the reduction and recycling of our existing carbon output. Like all plants, algae require carbon dioxide to grow. This means that while producing fuel and fresh water, algae would be actively removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The potential to utilize this for our benefit is huge. Algae ponds could be installed near operational fossil fuel plants and fed their carbon heavy exhaust as part of the ethanol production cycle.

As the U.S. continues to pursue innovation in its green energy future, funding these technological advances brings hope for a robust adaptation to the challenges of climate change. The green energy future could have huge potential for algae as a literal green energy powerhouse.