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Policy vs. the Project Pipeline

The renewable energy industry might be heartened by the high profile it received from President Obama in the State of the Union address. But there are some barriers to expansive project development, even if Congress went along and extended the production tax credit.

There’s one bottleneck that could delay even the most ambitious goals, according to one former official, that’s not discussed much. As public lands are opened up for renewable energy development, will there be enough qualified staff to move projects through permitting and other stages of development in a timely manner?

That worries Mary Anne Sullivan, a partner with law firm Hogan Lovells, who previously served as the Department of Energy’s General Counsel and Deputy General Counsel for Environment & Nuclear Programs during the Clinton administration.

“I spent seven-and-a-half years at the Department of Energy. I know how difficult it is to do, even with the best of intentions,” she said.

Field staff has to perform reviews of various permitting requirements, like environmental impacts, cultural and other requirements, often while understaffed or lacking enough qualified people for the volume of reviews.

“So far what I’ve seen is good policies in Washington not backed up with the assistance needed in the field to deliver on the policies in a business-sensitive time frame,” she said.

As reported here periodically, the U.S. Department of Interior has made a public display of highlighting its commitment to developing clean energy on the vast tracts of public land, particularly in the West. The Bureau of Land Management has identified dozens of projects.
Several have been “fast-tracked” efforts to expedite reviews of wind, solar or transmission projects.

But competing interests often cause delays. “Once a developer has met its legal obligations, the difficulty agencies is saying ‘OK, we did what was required we’re going to move ahead, even if one of our constituents is screaming bloody murder’,” Sullivan said.
“The government is not paid to be efficient. They are paid to be responsive to an enormous number of divergent constituencies. That’s a very hard job,” she added.

So the goals conflict with the reality of project development, as the oft-stated figure of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Sullivan doubts that can be reached, even if the PTC is extended promptly, by no means a done deal.

“To meet government deadlines the department needs a development partner who is committed to doing it right, not just quickly. They’re not cutting corners not refusing to consider inconvenient alternatives,” Sullivan added.

But don’t think the delays are only caused by encroachments on public lands. “I’m involved in a transmission project that involves both public and private lands, and I cannot say that the public land section is more difficult. Private land is extremely challenging as well when the opposition is well-organized,” Sullivan concluded.

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