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In 2016, electricity production accounted for 28.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Approximately 68 percent of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas, which are “nonrenewable” resources. Renewable energy describes energy generation from sources that are not depleted when they are used. Deployment of renewable energy technologies has been increasing across the United States, driven in large part by improvements in technology and reduction in production costs, as well as state-level renewable portfolio standards (RPS). The Department of Energy (DOE) reports that state RPS policies reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, while also reducing water use, creating renewable energy jobs, and suppressing wholesale electricity and natural gas prices. DOE calculated that the greenhouse gas and air pollution benefits alone saved the United States society $7.4 billion in 2013.
Renewable energy deployment can yield numerous benefits to people and the environment. A clear majority of Americans support accelerating the development of renewable energy technologies, demonstrating their eagerness to welcome the public health benefits and jobs that this growing sector can generate. Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of Americans prioritize the cultivation of renewable sources of energy. From Massachusetts to Oregon, many states are responding by stepping up their initiatives to support the development of renewable energy. These trends, while welcome, do pose a challenging question: Where should new clean energy infrastructure be located? As many land trusts are learning, this is a difficult issue to navigate. Large-scale energy development and new transmission lines can have a significant impact on the land and local communities.
Energy generation and transmission siting are significant land management decisions that occur at different scales across the landscape. From large to small scale, renewable energy siting can be contentious in the conservation community if environmental considerations are not well incorporated into early scoping efforts. Be it utility-scale deployment or distributed generation on roof tops and gardens, some land trusts have found renewable energy deployment to be compatible with land management objectives and existing easements.
Click to enlarge image While there is tremendous potential to produce renewable energy across the United States, as with all energy options, the social and ecological impacts of development must be assessed through science-based planning processes with opportunities for robust public involvement. In order to ensure high-quality and legitimate development decisions and minimize controversy, renewable development planning on public lands must include meaningful and early opportunities for public engagement, a 2009 policy statement from conservation organizations notes. Similarly, incorporating renewable energy deployment projects into land trust management principles must be considered with organizational goals and community sentiment in mind. Renewable energy facilities are often more compatible with existing agricultural land-uses, allowing, for example, farmers to continue to plant crops around wind turbines. In Indiana, the Wood-Land-Lakes Resource Conservation and Development Land Trust’s Waugh Farm incorporated wind turbines as part of a larger deployment project. Smaller scale distributed generation projects have also been found to be consistent with existing easements and operations. For example the Vermont Land Trusts’ Ayers Brook Goat Dairy installed a 150kW array on their building, leading by example to source cleaner power in their community.
There are no easy answers, so it’s essential that land trusts take steps to be part of the clean energy conversation. Through the Alliance’s Land and Climate Program, land trusts in New York have a new resource for framing the complicated issues around clean energy siting and transmission. Developed through a collaborative stakeholder process led by The Nature Conservancy and the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, the Renewables on the Ground Roundtable report outlines principles and recommendations for accelerating large-scale wind and solar energy in New York. This report emphasizes the importance of accelerating wind and solar energy deployment through proactive planning to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts, while increasing efficiency, reducing costs, and protecting the open spaces people love. As the Land Trust Alliance highlights in Reshaping the Energy Future, strategic deployment of appropriate renewable energy resources can support improved conservation outcomes in the context of a changing climate.