By Jameka Hodnett, Former National Campaign Director
Last year, Congress approved billions of dollars for clean energy projects to make meaningful progress toward climate goals. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) offers a historic opportunity to scale renewable energy investment, spur economic growth and create millions of jobs. But there’s a hurdle that will keep it from reaching its full potential: permitting.
In order to maximize the benefits of renewable energy and equitably distribute its benefits, we need a stronger, more efficient electric grid. That means taking on big power line projects that cross city and state lines to deliver clean energy to communities. However, in order for these projects to come online, they need permission to build from all levels of government.
That’s where the current permitting process becomes a problem. Right now, the timeline for getting permission to build an energy project is painfully long - sometimes lasting for 10 years or more due to extensive environmental and judicial review processes. For example, the Grain Belt Express – a large transmission line project that would connect renewable energy generated in Kansas to more populous surrounding states - has been caught in the throes of permitting since 2010. Thirteen years of delays signal a huge missed opportunity to scale clean, affordable energy in the Midwest.
That’s why we need permitting reform. With the urgency of climate change and the importance of maximizing IRA funds, we have limited time to rapidly scale renewable energy investments. Currently, our electric grid is outdated and fragmented. The grid lacks resilience and longevity; it does not distribute energy properly across state or regional boundaries or share the load between different utilities, nor is it equipped for increasing catastrophic storms due to climate change. It’s time for legislators to stop kicking the can down the road and seize the historic opportunity to maximize climate funds while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels – and changing the way energy permits are granted is critical to the IRA’s success.
However, the issue of permitting reform is contentious - especially for communities that have been impacted by pollution from fossil fuel infrastructure for decades. For many of these communities, the current lengthy permitting process has been used as a linchpin when there has been no other recourse to keep polluting energy projects at bay. A just approach to permitting reform cannot build on patterns of disparity that have created frontline communities in the first place. These communities need to not only benefit from more clean energy projects, but they should also have a seat at the table as projects are planned and approved.
What if there is a way to reshape the permitting process to bring more renewable energy online, protect communities from pollution, and unleash climate funds while upholding responsible environmental review processes? There is. There is a barrage of permitting bills roaming around in the federal legislature right now. Some of them increase community review processes, increase interagency staff to review permits and answer tough questions on who should benefit from interstate power line projects. Other bills are downright disastrous and repeal robust environmental review processes that have saved communities and ecosystems from harmful pollution for decades.
The reality is: permitting reform is happening. Who will benefit most is yet to be determined, and that’s where you come in. We need a diverse group of advocates to engage on this issue, and participate in a dialogue about what needs to happen for the largest climate investment in history to flourish. We need to lean into this conversation on permitting and advocate for the things we do want to see in the comprehensive bill. The issues with our grid and our environment will not be solved by kicking the can down the road yet again, and an equitable transition to net zero will not be realized without a diverse coalition advocating for the policies that will impact us most.