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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Mammoths, Sloths, And Camels Are Hurting The U.S. Renewable Revolution

  • Present estimates suggest that more than a million miles of additional transition lines will be needed in the United States if the country is to meet its renewable energy plans.
  • A combination of resistance from environmentalists, local communities, and a cumbersome regulatory process is making grid expansion particularly difficult.
  • The most recent transmission line fiasco comes in the form of the Greenlink West project, which is set to pass through an area famous for the fossils of wooly mammoths, giant sloths, and ancient American camels. 

The United States has a power line problem. In order to meet its climate goals by 2050, the country will have to expand its existing power transmission infrastructure at an unprecedented scale and pace. But a litany of challenges from a Kafkaesque regulatory process that causes interstate power line projects to fall behind by full decades to pushback from bleeding heart environmental activists and deeply red NIMBYs alike. 

Present estimates figure that more than a million miles of additional transition lines will be needed to prepare the grid for the renewable revolution, meaning that the current system will have to increase by two or three times its current size in just a couple of decades. “The current power grid was constructed over more than a century,” The New York Times recently reported. “Building what amounts to a new power grid on a similar scale in a small fraction of that time is a daunting challenge.”

The grid as a whole will need a major facelift, which will require huge investments along with strong policy support, but power lines alone represent one of the single biggest hurdles to the United States’ green transition. “What makes the target virtually impossible to hit is the byzantine approval process that typically includes separate reviews by every municipality and state through which a power line will pass, as well as a host of federal agencies,” reports the Times. 

As a result of this process, the average regulatory review of renewable energy projects for approval takes about 3.5 years, but in more than one case, a single transition line has taken well over a decade to be completed. In one particularly egregious instance, the TransWest Express project took a whopping 18 years to finally get approved and is expected to take another five years to be completed. Related: Will OPEC+ Surprise The Market With Another Output Cut?

Now, another major transmission line, the Greenlink West project, is facing a whole other set of roadblocks. The project aims to build a 470-mile-long transmission line crossing the whole of Nevada, with the goal of bringing clean energy from the Las Vegas area in the south of the state to Reno in the north. Although the project doesn’t cross any state lines, which should significantly shorten the bureaucratic process of approval, it has nonetheless faced serious challenges. This time, the problem is slightly more unique and comes in the form of wooly mammoths, giant sloths, and ancient American camels. 

Dead ones, that is. The proposed transition line would cross straight through one of the country’s richest areas of ice-age fossils, the 23,000-acre Tule Springs Fossil Beds monument. As a result, conservationists have given the project a lot of pushback. While many commend the effort to expand clean energy infrastructure, they feel that the proposed project was too hastily developed, to the detriment of the monument. 

As Sherri Grotheer, president of the Protectors of Tule Springs Fossil Bedstold the Guardian, “Sometimes knee-jerk reactions can cause unintended consequences and we know there are innumerable fossils left here, there is evidence of fossils everywhere just under the surface. [...] It’s one of the most significant fossil sites in the continental US and maybe beyond,” said Grotheer. “It’s just very cool. I just want them to look at alternative routes. There is also the concern of putting projects like this in national parks, because then you think ‘where does this end?’”

The tension between activists and clean energy infrastructure is not an isolated phenomenon. Meeting decarbonization goals in time to avoid climate catastrophe will require massive projects that will inevitably be disruptive to some and eyesores to others. As a result, grassroots movements against different clean energy projects have emerged from both sides of the aisle. The expansion of energy transition lines has already caught flack from such disparate groups as conservation groups, concerned citizens and fossil fuel interests, spanning across the country, from New England to the Arizona desert.

The complaints against these projects are generally extremely understandable. But ultimately, time is of the essence, and reducing the time needed to develop these kinds of projects has to be shortened significantly if the United States is to have any hope of meeting its emissions targets. When each project is looked at individually, there is no shortage of areas for improvement. But writ large, the clean energy transition is a herculean effort that will require unprecedented re-imagining and re-building of existing systems and infrastructure, and make no mistake, it will often be messy. But there is no alternative.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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  • DoRight Deikins on June 05 2023 said:
    That's because most people are short-sighted. They look at what they think is the urgent (like power lines), and not at the important (like historical records that are priceless).

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