In August, President Biden made good on commitments to put the U.S. on a path to a “net-zero” economy by signing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which funds investments in proven and emerging technologies ranging from wind and solar generation to electric vehicles to hydrogen to carbon capture. President Biden also pledged to pursue permitting reforms to prevent clean energy investments from becoming tied up in bureaucratic red tape. After all, what good is historic funding for climate solutions if you can’t spend it?
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, has led efforts to find common ground between Democrats and Republicans on permitting and has proposed reforms designed to improve coordination, avoid duplication, shorten timelines, and allow for federal approval of critical transmission projects. Yet despite the fact that they would accelerate clean energy progress, Manchin’s proposals have divided climate advocates, pitting organizations that prioritize rapid deployment of solutions against traditional environmentalists who see the permitting process as a means to kill projects they oppose.
Meeting climate goals will require construction of new infrastructure at a pace never seen in our nation’s history. Yet few climate advocates identify infrastructure deployment as a top priority, perhaps because they tend to focus on securing climate commitments and blocking “fossil infrastructure” with little thought for how (or if) clean alternatives get built. Our members don’t have that luxury.
The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) supports climate action and is excited about opportunities to put members to work replacing carbon-intensive resources with low and zero-carbon alternatives. But construction workers can’t live on climate commitments; we need projects that are funded, permitted, and ready to connect to the grid. For us, approval of a 100-percent clean energy goal or plant retirement isn’t the end of the road. Instead, it is the beginning of an often grueling, years-long process of permitting and building replacement infrastructure.
Over the past five years, LIUNA members in Minnesota and North Dakota have participated in 50-plus hearings to move wind, solar, and associated transmission projects forward. With the exception of local residents who oppose development, we have yet to encounter a single environmental activist at these meetings. Through our participation in the process, we know how expensive, difficult, and time-consuming it can be to site a wind or solar farm, even when the project’s impacts are fairly minor.
Yet, today’s challenges permitting clean energy projects are just the tip of the iceberg. Existing wind and solar facilities are located on the lowest-cost, best-resourced, lowest-impact sites adjacent to existing transmission routes. Once this low-hanging fruit has been picked, the next round of projects faces higher costs and greater difficulties. In the absence of new transmission corridors and permitting reforms, siting new clean energy generation will become not just more difficult, but exponentially so.
The process of siting new wind and solar projects is cumbersome, but it is nothing compared to the difficulty of routing new transmission – a challenge Manchin’s reforms take head-on. In order to reach net-zero emissions by 2040, we need to double the size of our transmission system, if not expand it five-fold, according to the Princeton University Net-Zero America study. This means permitting and building hundreds of thousands of miles of new transmission – a goal that could be out of reach given how easily projects can be tangled under current law.
A robust electric grid is the foundation for a clean economy, but today it is a weak link, limiting our ability to add new clean resources and electric load to power EVs and heat pumps. The case of the stalled Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line shows how vulnerable the clean energy transition remains to a broken permitting process.
Three years ago, our union identified more than 20 large wind and solar projects under development in Minnesota, representing well over 3,000 megawatts of clean energy and thousands of potential jobs. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s transmission grid ran out of surplus capacity in 2019, sidelining dozens of projects that could not afford the price tag associated with transmission upgrades.
Today, the promise of abundant clean energy and jobs remains unfulfilled. None of the 20-plus projects identified three years ago has been completed. Two are finishing construction, while a third face significant hurdles obtaining permits for a 27-mile transmission tie-line. The rest of the projects are either awaiting the arrival of new transmission, or have been abandoned as developers turned their attention to less congested regions. Nor are these problems unique to Minnesota; green job talking points are running into harsh permitting realities across the Midwest.
A better future is possible. We can finally access the resources needed to deliver clean power, electrify transportation, and tackle hard-to-decarbonize industries. The question is whether we will take advantage of the opportunities, or let a broken permitting system delay implementation and inflate the cost of climate solutions.
Sen. Manchin’s reforms won’t fix our broken permitting system, but they are a step in the right direction. Adopting reforms signals recognition that winning the fight against climate change depends on our ability to quickly put clean energy steel in the ground. Minnesota’s Congressional delegation should choose progress over inaction and red tape by supporting Manchin’s proposal, and state officials can do the same by including reforms in proposed climate legislation.
Kevin Pranis is the marketing manager at LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota and serves on Gov. Tim Walz’s Climate Advisory Council.