As our country grapples with rolling out renewable energy in the face of anticipated climate change, environmentalists have become environmentalists' own worst nightmare. Last week, a number of environmental groups cheered when a federal appellate panel denied a Department of Energy bid to establish a massive grid of electric transmission line corridors throughout the country. The three-judge panel cited inadequate environmental reviews and failure to consult with affected states as reasons for rejecting the plan.
The corridors would've covered 100 million acres in 10 states, providing much-needed transmission capacity for energy produced by new renewable solar, wind, and geothermal plants. Current transmission capacity has been limited enough to hinder the siting and development of the first wave of large-scale solar plants throughout the Mojave Desert, and utility companies are under federal and state pressure to buy even more power from renewable sources in coming years. Transmission is a particularly important consideration when it comes to delivering power from remote sources such as desert solar farms, mountaintop wind farms, and remote geothermal plants.
In a decision lauded by environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Panel, the judges directed the DOE to restart their environmental review process. California utility companies, who must purchase 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, consider the decision a major setback. But the four East Bay solar companies who were profiled in our cover story on large-scale solar development in the California desert, may not be affected at all — at least in the near-term.
"We don’t expect this court ruling to have any effect on our project development pipeline," wrote Alan Bernheimer, spokesman for Oakland's FirstSolar. "We and our customers are working with the state of California and do not expect to rely on any federal powers in the Energy Policy Act for transmission upgrades." Representatives of both Oakland's Solar Millennium and Richmond's SunPower likewise expressed the expectation that their current and propsed projects would not be affected by the decision. Oakland's BrightSource did not respond to a request for comment.
Even if all four companies get off scot-free, there will certainly come a day when our country cannot proceed with renewable energy development without significant transmission infrastructure improvements. But as environmental groups have insisted, and federal judges have now agreed, it'll need to happen in an environmentally friendly manner.