The world is currently confronting the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Combating the climate crisis requires accelerating the development of carbon-free, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Without careful planning, however, there is potential for the development of renewables to contribute to the biodiversity crisis through unintended impacts to wildlife and their habitats. For the past decade, Defenders of Wildlife has partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Wilderness Society (TWS) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to promote renewable energy development that is sited and designed to avoid jeopardizing wildlife and wildlands. We recognize that the best opportunities to maximize the benefits of renewable energy while minimizing its impacts occur early in the planning process. That’s why we refer to our approach as “Smart from the Start.”
The latest effort from the Smart from the Start partnership is a recently completed series of three webinars, made possible by the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, that addressed different aspects of renewable energy siting. In these webinars we shared lessons learned while advocating for the responsible development of renewable energy and discussed tools that stakeholders may find useful when engaging in the renewables planning process. Recordings of the webinars are available here.
We presented the first webinar, “Strategies for Low-Conflict and Low-Impact Renewable Energy Land Use Planning and Development,” on September 28. Host Nels Johnson of TNC introduced the concept of Smart from the Start planning and described TNC’s own take on it, the Clean and Green Pathways model, which seeks to guide renewable energy development to previously disturbed areas. Belinda Griswold of Resource Media addressed the environmental justice aspects of renewable energy planning, highlighting the need to consider the potential costs and benefits of renewable energy for local communities and outlining ways for developers and environmental organizations to better engage communities in the planning process. Helen O’Shea of NRDC gave an overview of two approaches to planning at a regional scale: California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) and San Joaquin Valley Least Conflict Solar Project. TNC’s Brad Kreps described an effort to develop a solar facility on a former coal mine in the Cumberland Forest region of Virginia. Finally, Jessica Price, Sustainability and Resilience Manager for the City of Madison, Wisconsin, outlined the Long Island Solar Roadmap, a joint project of Defenders and TNC to create a vision for solar development in the urban setting of Long Island.
Collaborative Renewable Energy Planning
The second webinar, “Collaborative Approaches to Renewable Energy Planning,” took place on October 12. Belinda Griswold kicked it off with an overview of the interested parties often involved in the renewables planning process and the conflicts that may occur among them. Sarah Mills of the University of Michigan presented research findings that highlight effective collaborative approaches, emphasizing the importance of a planning process that is transparent, fair and focused on community-wide benefits. Donna Marie Noel, Natural Resources Director for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, provided a Tribal perspective from Nevada. She described ongoing renewable energy projects at Pyramid Lake and recommended some best practices for developers who would pursue renewable energy development on Tribal land. Peter Gower of TNC then outlined the work of the Smart from the Start Planning Consortium in Nevada, including advocacy for a state-wide energy and infrastructure plan and the siting of solar facilities on mined lands. Dalia Madi of Defenders and Diane Brandt of Renewable Northwest discussed the OregonSmart Siting Collaboration’s efforts to engage with developers, communities and other stakeholders to create a voluntary framework for citing renewable energy facilities in Oregon. And Defenders’ Aimee Delach expanded on Jessica Price’s earlier presentation by describing the collaborative approaches used during development of the Long Island Solar Roadmap.
Tools of the Trade
The series concluded on October 19 with the third webinar, “Technical Tools for Collaborative Planning.” Mackenzie Bosher of TWS provided an overview of mapping tools and data useful for renewable energy planning and highlighted the use of GIS in recommending solar energy zones in Nevada. Mike Fuhr described TNC’s mapping tool Site Renewables Right, a source of information for screening proposed renewable projects based on areas of high and low risk for potential wildlife impacts. Belinda Griswold then discussed the strengths and limitations of two tools that can be used to center the interests of host communities in renewable energy planning, the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen and the Distressed Communities Index.
More than 180 people registered to attend these webinars, representing a diverse range of environmental nonprofit organizations, regulatory agencies, renewable energy developers and community groups. Many of the participants were stakeholders in the partnership’s past and ongoing projects like the Long Island Solar Roadmap, the OregonSmart Siting Collaboration and the Smart from the Start Planning Consortium in Nevada. We also invited organizations from three states that we identified as key to renewable energy planning going forward: North Carolina, New Mexico and Wyoming. Prior to the webinars, the Smart from the Start partners conducted interviews with many of the organizations to learn about their perspectives on renewable energy planning. We are now organizing a series of workshops located in North Carolina, New Mexico and Wyoming – to be held early next year – that will focus on some of the central challenges and opportunities related to renewable energy development in those states.