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US permitting council chief promises changed environment for renewables

20 July 2022 Keiron Greenhalgh

Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council Executive Director Christine Harada promised a changed US permitting landscape for renewable energy projects based on additional competencies bestowed on the agency as the Biden administration runs up against fears red tape will ruin any chance its climate ambitions have of succeeding.

Harada even went so far as to suggest she would like to see some of this year's eye-popping offshore wind lease auction fees directed toward the agency, known colloquially as the Permitting Council, in order to help push through the many gigawatts of solar and wind generation newbuild proposed, plus the transmission lines needed to transport the electricity to load centers.

"My role is fundamentally to deliver on President [Joe] Biden's infrastructure agenda, bottom line, period, end of story," Harada told a Bipartisan Policy Council event 13 July on permitting, as the Permitting Council builds on newly established powers to improve coordination among agencies, help avoid and resolve potential conflicts and bottlenecks, and carry out troubleshooting.

Established in 2015, the Permitting Council manages a portfolio of nearly $100 billion in infrastructure projects. It works across 13 federal agencies. Among the energy projects the council is tasked with helping move forward are conventional energy projects, renewable energy projects, broadband, transmission lines, pipelines, and hydro dams.

Harada, who was named to her post 6 July 2021, said that "sometimes there's some really sticky policy issues" and the council can convene senior agency leaders in order to resolve difficulties.

Prior to joining the federal government, Harada was vice president for government affairs at concentrated solar technology developer Heliogen, and sees her role as fundamental to advancing the buildout of the US' renewable energy portfolio.

"Funding is great, but permitting is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. I think I don't need to lay it on heavy on this particular audience that this is exactly where we really need to work together and ensure that we are reducing the friction with respect to getting this infrastructure actually done," Harada said.

Harada said permitting delays were already decreasing in the 12 months since she took up her post, citing success in moving the 690-MW Gemini solar project in Nevada forward. Harada said Gemini had already spent 10 years in the permitting process before the council got involved.

Offshore wind backlog

Offshore wind permitting—a sector where the US has over 32 GW of projects announced—has at least six agencies involved, issuing 12 reviews and permits. The Permitting Council, Harada said, carried out work that advanced Ørsted and Eversource's South Fork Wind project in New York state waters. Construction of South Fork began in late January. The project received the final federal green light, its Record of Decision, from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) in November 2021.

"It is a strong signal—I would like to think—to the investor community, to the project development community, to the state and local government communities, that we are serious and we are getting this done," said Harada, a former White House chief sustainability officer under President Obama.

The Permitting Council was created under Title 41 of Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. But it only received permanent authorization under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was approved in November 2021.

And due to authorization from the bipartisan infrastructure law, the council can now transfer funds to local authorities to help out with environmental reviews. "Infrastructure is a forever thing, it is not like our phones that you recycle after every two years or so; these are 20, 30, 50, 100-year investments that we are making in our communities and so we're in it with you," Harada said.

"Despite the name, FAST41, it is not a short-cut. We do not cut corners. We do not do short-shrift to any of the environmental reviews or authorizations or statutes … The primary savings and times that we have been able to achieve thus far, largely has been just due to pure and simple coordination," she said.

But if Harada had one wish to be granted, she said, it would be the vital matter of funding. For all the complaints about bureaucracy, appropriations remain too small, she said, especially for the cooperating agencies. Cooperating agencies are those caught out by the needs created when a lead agency makes a request, she added.

"Can we leverage some of the funding that we raise from the wind area lease auctions? Those go to [the Department of the] Treasury. Solely to Treasury. Which is fine, it pays down the deficit, all that good stuff. Could we not allocate just even a small percentage of that to permitting, because we are providing these lease auctions specifically for project developer opportunities for investment in our infrastructure. Can we not save off a little bit of it so that we can help execute it and make it a reality? That would be amazing."

Music to their ears

Harada's message would have found a receptive audience across Washington later 13 July where a panel of developers and trade associations bemoaned the slow pace of offshore wind permitting, even though they said the Biden administration is shifting through the gears after four years of Trump administration intransigence.

Industry consensus is that things are getting quicker, they said. Construction and operations plans are now taking just seven or eight years rather than the 10 years required before President Biden took office, said Business Network for Offshore Wind President CEO Liz Burdock.

The US offshore wind industry needs standardized permitting, said Burdock. The permitting process in Europe is comprehensive, she told an event at the Norwegian embassy, adding that the federal government needs to take a bigger role. The more centralized European model is sitting there waiting to be adopted, she said. Derisking the site for developers is a key step, and centralized permitting is paramount, she added.

In addition, to unlock offshore wind's potential in the US, succeed in meeting the Biden administration's goals, and avoid permitting problems, the federal government and Congress must make sure that permitting agencies have sufficient budgets, said National Grid Ventures Head of Offshore Wind Nabil Hitti, making sure there are "no delays whatsoever."

A subsidiary of UK-based National Grid plc, National Grid Ventures teamed up with Germany's RWE Renewables to splash out more than $1 billion on one offshore wind lease area in February's eye-popping New York Bight auction.

Hitti was joined in calling for full BOEM funding by Madeline Vey, Equinor senior director for political and public affairs. Equinor is a partner in the 2.1-GW Empire Wind 1 and Empire 2 projects off the coast of New York, and the 1.23-GW Beacon Wind project in Massachusetts waters. Equinor's partner on all three projects is UK-based oil major BP.

Such projects are plotting their way through permitting the 30-MW Block Island facility, still the US' only commercially operating offshore wind farm, tackled a decade ago. Block Island is set to be joined in Rhode Island waters by the 400-MW Revolution Wind facility and a further 600 MW to 1 GW of output. On 6 July, Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee signed a law requiring a tender be held for up 1 GW of offshore wind.

One of Rhode Island's representatives in Congress and a keen advocate of renewable energy, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat-Rhode Island, told the audience assembled at the embassy that permitting problems and the administration's goals can only be tackled by grasping the nettle and resolving conflicts as early as possible.

Such conflicts ended up dooming the 468-MW Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, which was to have been the US' first commercial scale offshore wind project. Cape Wind's backers received a final environmental impact in January 2009 after submitting an initial application in 2001.

Cape Wind eventually threw in the towel in 2017, relinquishing its lease in December that year. Among the hurdles it faced was the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places determining that Nantucket Sound was eligible for listing as a traditional cultural property and an historic and archaeological property.

The project that actually became the first US commercial scale offshore wind project to win federal approval was the 800-MW Vineyard Wind 1 project, also in Massachusetts waters. Vineyard Wind 1 is slated for completion in the second quarter of 2024. Backed by Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables, Vineyard Wind 1 secured its lease area in 2015 and submitted its plans to BOEM in December 2017.

Federal US authorities under Biden may be speeding things up through the Permitting Council, but governments around the globe must quicken the pace of offshore wind lease permitting if they want to hit both their targets for the sector and climate goals, Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) officials warned 30 June, even as offshore wind construction reaches previously unheard of levels.

Equinor's Vey argued the same thing at the embassy. Congress cannot just pick up what seems like a good idea without considering all its consequences, she said, specifically citing a provision attached to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed the House of Representatives 14 July.

Said amendment would require foreign wind turbine installation vessels to hire US mariners or, alternatively, citizens of the vessel's flag state. Vey said not enough vessels and mariners are available to make the provision a possibility. What is required is the ambition to build an industry for the long term, she said.

Still, the offshore wind sector had some good news from the NDAA. A 10-year moratorium on leasing of offshore areas stretching from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico for energy, including wind, is currently set to be nixed. A panoply of offshore wind trade groups petitioned congressional leaders for the moratorium's reversal in March.

Harada, meanwhile, said South Fork's progress contributed to the auction prices in both the New York Bight and Carolina Bay lease sales. She noted there are 10 more offshore wind projects in the Permitting Council's pipeline. She said the consolidated project plan now offered by the agency she heads has been an "eye opener" for industry.

The consolidated plan isn't the only tool in the Biden administration's permitting toolbox though. In May, the White House launched a Permitting Action Plan which it said would "support the president's ambitious climate and clean energy goals." It added that the plan would result in "better permitting outcomes, enhanced predictability for project sponsors, and increased accountability" across federal agencies. Part of that, the White House said, would involve leveraging the Permitting Council's expanded authority under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

Posted 20 July 2022 by Keiron Greenhalgh, Senior Editor

This article was published by S&P Global Commodity Insights and not by S&P Global Ratings, which is a separately managed division of S&P Global.


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