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Practical Tips for Navigating the Regulatory Maze in Developing Renewable Energy Projects

I recently participated in a webinar sponsored by a national environmental consulting firm that focused on dealing with environmental and health impacts in developing renewable energy, such as wind and solar power projects. The webinar offered several common sense tips and practical advice.

Many projects fail because they do not have enough of the power contracted for, and thus the financing collapse. Be sure that most of the power generated has buyers under contract. Similarly, developers need to be mindful of the existing transmission infrastructure that the project will rely on for distribution is adequate and contracts are in place to allow transmission. If the project needs to build new transmission capacity that could kill the project up front or the delay could beyond investor timeframes.

Siting the project is critical to avoid environmental and health impacts that could lead to public opposition or litigation and kill or unreasonably delay the project. Project proponents need to be mindful of the presence of endangered species in the project area. Solar projects, for example, set solar panels in an array that may cover hundreds of acres that do not allow wildlife to co-exist within the solar array footprint. Thus, if an endangered species needs the habitat, then the location may lead to public opposition. This has been an issue for solar projects in the Southwest because of the endangered desert tortoise.

Wind turbines kill bats and birds and thus projects should be sited to avoid or minimize these impacts. Endangered bats and birds, such as bald and golden eagles, pose the most project risk, even though the U.S. Department of Interior has promulgated rules allowing the “incidental take” of eagle’s period for up to 30 years. Interior has also issued guidelines that help developers evaluate and mitigate impacts to bats and birds in siting, constructing and operating projects. These voluntary guidelines should be followed if possible.

Finally, projects should be sited with human health impacts in mind. Noise is the biggest issue for wind projects, while sun glare may pose a challenge for solar projects. Transmission lines raise the specter of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), even though there is not any sound scientific certainty concerning health effects.

Nevertheless, perception often morphs into reality in the court of public opinion so avoiding or mitigating the issue is usually the best course of action to avoid project delay or jeopardize project financing.

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