I love alternative energy (who doesn’t?). I live in the state that has been perhaps the hardest hit by the economic recession and needs relief and new strategies. And like most people, I’m pretty damn happy with our new President. So when President Obama and Congressional leaders put out an economic stimulus plan that includes investments in renewable energy projects, it seemed like a match made in environmental-economic policy heaven. And while it would be a good step in the right direction, Washington and the media seem to be ignoring some of the legal realities that will come into play.
The President’s plan (laid out in his January 24 weekly address) to double capacity in alternative energy generation (wind, solar, biofuels) and distribute that new energy with 3,000 miles of electric transmission lines is right on. The House has already moved on the plan, passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R. 1), which invests almost $15 billion in renewable energy projects and new electric transmission lines. Over the long term, this investment will certainly boost emerging clean energy industries and help the economy grow. But it will have only limited value as a short term economic stimulus tool. That’s because a host of environmental and energy laws, most notably the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), will require extensive studies and regulatory processes before building new power generation plants (even wind and solar) and the transmission lines to distribute the electricity (even from wind and solar). Having worked on siting and permitting plants and transmission lines (I’ve represented both energy companies and environmental groups in different matters), the only outcome I know for certain is that it will take a long time to get anything done. We’re talking years, not months as the President and Congressional leaders have promised. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it will take as much as seven years to spend the alternative energy money, and based on my experience with these types of projects, I agree.
To be fair, the President’s plan and House bill also contain $18.5 billion for energy efficiency programs (weatherizing buildings, etc), which can be spent and accomplished relatively quickly without significant legal requirements or delays. So the best way to view the energy programs in the economic recovery plan is as a mix of short term stimulus and long term investment. This is not a reason to oppose the President’s plan or back away from investing in renewable energy. We need to do it, and should have done it years ago. Perhaps we should consider some legal reforms to fast-track permitting for renewable energy projects (which makes a lot more sense than the prior administration’s approach of fast-tracking dirty fossil fuel projects). Even with reforms, the alternative energy investments won’t be spent for several years. But for alternative energy, late is better than never.