Accelerating the Energy Transition with Repurposed Energy

Local opposition to clean energy projects slows the transition to a low carbon energy system. A legal expert explores how a national policy of “repurposed energy” could speed things up.

Clean energy infrastructure projects often face opposition from communities where they would be built, a fact that stands in the way of efforts to rapidly lower energy-sector carbon emissions. 

Alexandra Klass, a professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, explores how “repurposed energy”, which directs clean energy projects to abandoned fossil fuel sites and marginal agricultural lands, can effectively counter local opposition and accelerate clean energy development. She also discusses key provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that support the development of clean energy in legacy energy communities and offers recommendations for policy to support repurposed energy nationwide.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

In recent years, concern has grown over the future reliability of the US electric grid. Concern has intensified, as natural events from extreme heat to cold snaps and wildfires to flooding have, with growing frequency, threatened communities and the electricity infrastructure that supports them. Simultaneously, we’ve entered an era of accelerated retirement of fossil fuel power plants, most notably the coal-fired generators that just a decade ago produced the bulk of electricity in this country. We’re now in a race to replace those power plants with clean energy, to ensure that the grid can meet growing electricity demand and do so in a way that slows climate change and reduces threats to our communities and energy infrastructure. Yet despite the urgent need for new clean power, the reality is that renewable energy projects often face permitting delays and denials that can stop development.

Today’s podcast will explore this challenge and how a national policy of repurposed energy, in which renewable energy development is concentrated in land retired from fossil fuel and farming use, could counter local opposition to clean energy projects. Today’s guest is Alexandra Klass, a Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and a Visiting Scholar here at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. Alex’s recent work has focused on repurposed energy and policy recommendations to make it reality. Alex, welcome to the podcast.

Alexandra Klass: Thanks, Andy. It’s great to be here.

Stone: Your recent work is focused on policy to support what’s known as “repurposed energy.” To get us started, could you define “repurposed energy” for us?

Klass: Yes, and this is a term that my co-author on this paper, Hannah Wiseman from Penn State and I have coined to describe the types of lands that we think new renewable energy development should really focus on. These are going to be lands that are already distressed in some way or another, so closed landfills, closed coal mines, retired or retiring coal plants or other fossil fuel infrastructure. Also, just abandoned or underutilized industrial property that’s often found in Rust Belt cities and the surrounding areas — and also marginal farmlands that are not particularly productive farmlands. If you put all of that together, that really falls within our definition of “repurposed energy.”

Stone: Okay, so the concept of repurposed energy is attractive in one sense because it’s an enabler of the energy transition, hopefully. Fundamentally, it could help to address some of the challenges to clean energy development from both ends of the political spectrum, which you point out in the paper. Could you walk us through these challenges?

Klass: Yes, really there is often significant resistance to change in communities. The presumption is that change is bad, even if what’s existing there is also bad, but at least it’s what you’re used to. So when change comes in, people are skeptical. This is true in conservative parts of the country, in rural areas. If you have a large wind or solar farm that’s proposed to come into the community, it will change what it looks like. It will change some of the land use. But it’s also true in urban areas and suburban areas that might be populated by people who are progressive or liberal. They believe in climate change. They want to do something about climate change. They are in favor of renewable energy, but not in their community. This is not the right project.

So you really see the same resistance from both the political right and the political left. It takes place oftentimes in different parts of the country in terms of rural or urban areas, but you have a similar skepticism of change and concern about the impacts on home prices, on communities, on landscapes, on open-space areas.

Stone: If we use land that is repurposed from prior use, then we get past some of those barriers. Is that the idea?

Klass: We can, and it’s not just that it has had prior uses. It’s that this land now, in its current state, is not particularly productive. It’s not of benefit to the community, and the idea is that this land, which is already in some way, shape, or form a detriment to the community — it can actually be a benefit. It can be a financial benefit to individual landowners, to the entire community through additional revenues. It can bring economic development in other sorts of ways. And so you can create a net-positive, if you’re focusing on these sets of lands, and hopefully break through some of those barriers to change.

Stone: Now one of the realities of the clean energy transition is that it’s going to take a lot of land. As your paper quotes information from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, about 6% of US land would need to be dedicated to renewable energy to reach 100% renewable grid. To what extent can repurposed land accommodate the future scale of clean energy?

Klass: Before I answer the question, let’s step back and look at some of the facts you’ve put in there. The National Renewable Energy Lab report didn’t focus on 100% renewable energy grid. It focused on 100% clean energy grid by 2035, which is one of the Biden administration goals and is also a goal or a mandate of many states across the country. So what’s the difference between renewable energy and clean energy? Clean energy includes nuclear energy, so that is carbon-free. It’s not renewable because it’s powered by uranium. We have a lot of it, but it’s not a renewable energy resource. It also allows the possibility for continuing to use natural gas with carbon-capture sequestration, if that ends up being able to be commercially developed in a way that’s economic and can be part of the electric grid.

So the goal is 100% clean electricity by 2035, so that’s what the study looked at — and also with regard to the amount of land. So NREL looked at both the direct impacts and the indirect impacts that are needed. It’s mostly going to be wind and solar build-out to get to 100% clean energy, because we’re just not building a lot of new nuclear in the country. There’s a new reactor in Georgia that’s coming online. We may be able to develop economically more advanced, smaller modular nuclear reactors, but basically the report is assuming that that’s not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen by 2035.

So they looked at both direct impacts and indirect impacts. If you just look at direct impacts, it’s actually a much smaller amount of land. It’s like .44%, as opposed to 6%. What’s the difference? That’s a pretty big difference, right? It’s do you count the space between wind turbines or not? With solar, you’re using most of the land, although you can still use it for certain types of agriculture, agricultural tax grazing, but you are covering the bulk of the land. That’s not true with a wind farm. The outer edges of the wind farm might be a very large area, but the actual space that the turbines are taking up is quite small. And between the turbines, landowners can do all of the farming or grazing or other activities they would be doing with the land, as before.

If you count all the space between the turbines as being devoted to renewable energy, putting aside the fact that you actually can use it for many other things that were used before, then that’s where you get to that almost 6%. If you don’t count the land in-between the wind turbines, it’s actually a much smaller footprint, and NREL has a really helpful map in their report that shows that to scale over a map of the United States and also compares those amounts to the amount of land currently used for growing corn ethanol, for urban areas, for grazing lands. So you have a nice comparison. That’s the land use issue.

So then back to your question, which is do we have enough lands that we would consider repurposed lands, to be able to put all that new energy infrastructure? And so far, the studies seem to say yes. There are some studies that look at what they define as “marginal lands,” which overlap pretty heavily with Hannah’s and my definition of repurposed lands. They come up with about 11% of the US is marginal lands. They have some other types of lands that we don’t include, like highway rights of way, and those sorts of things. But overall, they are looking at the same sort of thing. They are looking at brownfield sites. They’re looking at closed landfills, coal mines, underutilized industrial property. So it’s the same.

Stone: So it sounds like the area is available, if we use it. You also point out, though, in the report that siting on brownfield sites can be a challenge. From what I understand, some of the liability for past contamination could pass to some of the new owners, et cetera — those types of things. Could you talk about the challenges, the barriers to actually reusing this land?

Klass: Yes, so at least from the CERCLA or Superfund perspective, a concern about liability for contamination, the risks of liability to a developer for these types of repurposed lands are generally going to be quite small. The concern, though, is that if you’re trying to eliminate any risk, you can’t, because you have CERCLA liability out there. But there are a lot of protections within the Superfund Law, both at the federal and the state level, for projects like this.

There’s an innocent landowner defense, which has been built into CERCLA for years that basically says if you’ve done due diligence, and you’ve looked, and you don’t find contamination, and then you buy or lease the property, you’re not going to be liable. But then, in 2002, Congress was still concerned about the brownfields problems and just people not wanting to build new shopping centers, housing, any kind of new factories on brownfields. And brownfields are not the heaviest contaminated properties that are on the EPA’s Superfund list that are subject to massive cleanup. Brownfields are defined now in CERCLA, in 2002, as really “land where development is hampered by the real or the perceived risk of contamination.” So a lot of this is perception, thinking, “This is a risk I don’t want to take. I would rather build on a greenfield site.”

So in 2002, Congress amended CERCLA again to provide what they called “protections for a bona fide prospective purchaser.” So under the old innocent landowner defense, you had to look for contamination, not find it, be reasonable about not finding it, and that would give you liability protection. Here, if you look for it, and you find it, you can still go ahead and buy and lease and develop the property, as long — again, if you’re done all the appropriate inquiries to figure out the extent of contamination, you don’t exacerbate the existing contamination, and you don’t interfere with the either any EPA or state cleanup that might be going on. And so this was passed at the federal level, to provide more protection from CERCLA liability, and then states, since the 1990s, have created voluntary cleanup programs and other programs for brownfields, to help developers, whether it’s for renewable energy or for any other type of redevelopment, to work with state officials, to agree on what any sort of level of cleanup should be, and then provide liability assurance letters. That’s really helpful for banks, to get financing.

When I was in private practice in Minnesota, I worked with a lot of companies and developers. I worked with them with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to walk them through that process, to get the liability assurances they needed so they could do the development and get their financing. And so those sorts of protections have been in place for a long time, and one of the things we argue, or at least propose, in the paper is that the states can do perhaps more in terms of their liability assurances and their technical support when it comes to repurposed energy projects, and when it comes to actually using these sites for renewable energy development. We track some states like New York and others that have actually been doing this for a while, really focusing on using what we call “repurposed properties” for renewable energy development.

Stone: So the states have been helping out, and as you’re saying, they could actually do some more, as well?

Klass: They could do some more, and EPA could do more, as well. EPA has their Repowering America’s Lands project that has been in place for a long time to try to identify appropriate sites, work with developers. But in terms of providing liability assurances, they could probably amp that up and really show a real commitment to making these projects a reality.

Stone: Now the IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provide incentives for developers to actually target brownfield sites. One prime example is the DOE’s Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment or EIR program, which is 250 billion dollars for this purpose. Could you talk about this and other key incentives that are in the IRA, in the Bipartisan Law, to what extent are they really essential to this vision of repurposed energy?

Klass: I think they’re really complementary. Congress created certain different definitions that overlap, I think really well and are complementary to our focus on repurposed energy. So the program that you mentioned is a 250 billion-dollar loan program that was created in the Inflation Reduction Act for DOE to implement, and that is really focused in on utilities, on electric utilities, everything from new electric transmission lines, closing fossil fuel plants, building new renewable plants, and you can also use cleanup for brownfields. So if there is any environmental contamination, and there often is environmental contamination at fossil fuel sites, it’s a super broad loan program that really provides some helpful funding for utilities to sort of jumpstart efforts to re-imagine and reinvest their existing fossil fuel infrastructure and turn it into clean energy infrastructure.

But in addition to the loan program fund, there is also both the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act which created pretty significant financial incentives for renewable energy projects, clean energy projects targeted either in disadvantaged communities and also contaminated lands.

So there’s the Clean Energy Tax Credit that was kind of re-upped in the Inflation and Reduction Act for all new clean energy technologies. There’s an adder to that. There’s an additional percentage that developers get if they locate their new wind or solar or battery or other clean energy projects in what Congress defines as “energy communities.” And so these are going to be areas where there has been a coal plant that has closed after a certain date, where there has been a coal mine that has closed after a certain date, or where there’s a certain percentage of the population within a metropolitan statistical area that was devoted to essentially the fossil fuel industry, either extraction or processing or disposal. You can see maps online of which counties in the US are energy communities, and it’s a lot of the United States, so it’s trying to target additional monies towards those areas. It’s not a direct overlap with how we define repurposed energy, but there’s a lot of overlap there.

There are also grant programs through the DOE for energy development on former mine lands. Again, well within our definition of “repurposed energy.” Unlike the loan program I talked about before, this is nothing that has to get paid back. This is a matching grant for development, and that can go directly to communities or renewable energy developers. And then there’s a series of other grant programs that we talk about in the paper that are really focused on getting additional money to rural and remote areas. There’s a definition of “rural and remote areas,” and so that also has some overlap with our definition of repurposed energy. So there’s a lot of federal money available to try to overcome the hurdles to building on these types of sites.

Stone: You and Hannah Wiseman spend a lot of time in the paper talking about the siting challenges that exist. You talk about jurisdictional authority in what you call the “federalism mismatch problem.” And basically what you explain is that local communities may be opposed to clean energy development, and that gets in the way of, say, state initiatives to reduce carbon emissions in that state, promote clean energy, et cetera. Can you talk about this federalism mismatch, or this mismatch between the priorities of local authorities and, say, state authorities? Or more broadly, state and national authorities, and what might be done to rectify that?

Klass: Certainly, and this is a topic that I’ve written extensively about in a different context, involving interstate electric transmission lines. Any time you’re talking about a federalism mismatch, you’re looking at is the regulatory authority at the same scale as the project? You like to have a matching between that. So on the electric transmission line, in that context, across the country — except if you’re building a transmission line on federal lands — states are in charge of the siting and the permitting process for transmission lines. And that is true, even if you’re trying to build a long transmission line that crosses five states to bring, for instance, wind energy in the upper Midwest to, let’s say Pennsylvania or New York.

Now that is a project of a regional and national scale, and it’s important to meet national goals, but any individual state can shut it down, and that often happens. And that is why many really important electric transmission line projects either fail, or they take 10 to 15 years to site, permit, and build. So that’s the kind of state, federal mismatch with regard to transmission lines.

When it comes to any type of energy generation projects, those typically are not interstate in nature, but if you have a large wind farm or a large solar farm, historically it has been local communities, counties or townships that have had both the siting authority and do all of the permitting for those projects. But many of these projects are of statewide importance, as you said, to meet state clean energy goals.

And so that raises the question of should it be a state entity that’s granting those permits and deciding where these projects should go? Or should it be the local government? And there’s a real mix of laws across the country with regard to that. A state that I lived in for almost 30 years, Minnesota, has always had statewide siting authority for wind, solar, fossil projects over a certain size. So local governments and local communities may not like it, but it’s not sort of a current hot issue of contention, just because that’s always been the way that these projects have been approved.

Local communities, local governments can participate in that process and certainly make their views clear to the state Public Utility Commission, which takes them into account. There are public hearings on it, but local governments don’t have a veto power over those projects, at least if they’re over a certain size. For smaller projects, they do.

But now I live in Michigan, where up until this year, all energy generation projects — fossil fuel, renewable — were all sited at the township level, which is a very localized level. And as more contention around new projects has built over the last few years, lots of townships have created outright bans on solar or wind projects, and this has been true across the country. You can see one or two newspaper articles every day. I just saw two more today about really heated debates and arguments in small towns in Kansas, in Nebraska, and places that have a lot of available land and are ripe for solar or wind development. And you have landowners who want to use their land for this purpose. The revenues associated with this kind of development can be wonderful for farmers who are not sure if they can keep farms in their families and pass it down to their children and their grandchildren. So you have a wind or a solar developer who says, “Hey, we can use a piece of your land, not all of it, for wind and solar. Here will be your annual lease payments. These are the types of payments that we’ll make in terms of taxes and other benefits to the community, and it’s great for the landowners.” But then you often have opposition from the community because of either concern about change, concern about aesthetics. Sometimes misinformation, often that is provided by fossil fuel companies who are opposed to these projects and try to funnel their opposition through landowner groups, it’s a mix of all of that.

And so states that have these clean energy mandates and clean energy goals — and there are many states across the country — are now looking at preempting that local authority, to have a state agency make decisions about wind and solar projects over a certain size. Michigan just passed a law doing that this year, Illinois, as well; New York a little while ago, and California, to try to centralize some of that siting authority at the statewide level. And these are very contentious issues, both in the legislature and in local communities, and we’re going to have to see how it plays out.

Stone: Yes, I was going to ask what the local response to this has all been.

Klass: Generally negative. Governmental authorities, whether they’re state authorities or local authorities, do not want power taken away from them. They want to make decisions for their communities. You see the same debate when there are efforts at the Congressional level to create federal siting authority for interstate electric transmission lines. And lots of state public utility commissions and state legislatures, even if they are quite progressive and are in favor of clean energy, they still don’t want their authority taken away from them. So yes, there is a lot of opposition by local communities, and it’s understandable.

Stone: As you point out, local control isn’t necessarily a bad thing in terms of renewable development. You bring up the example of Texas. It has the most wind power of any state in this country, and it has local control.

Klass: Or in some cases, no control — no local control. Texas is famous for many cities that have no zoning at all, so there are many places in Texas where you don’t even need a local approval. If you can work out an arrangement for the landowner, you build your project.

Stone: So it seems a fundamental question here is who really benefits from this development? Obviously the developers themselves benefit, but to get community buy-in, those communities would also have to have clear advantages, benefits to come from the development. You suggest policies that would ensure this type of community benefit involvement. Can you talk about those?

Klass: Yes, so as you said, the developers wouldn’t be doing the project unless they thought there was a financial benefit to them. Many of these Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law programs are providing even extra benefits for developments, to encourage more renewable energy development. Typically, and this applies more in rural areas than urban areas — so in rural areas, the landowners themselves have significant financial benefits. You have lease payments. These can be negotiated. It provides a really significant source of income to landowners. Then the question is: How do you benefit the surrounding community enough so that the community is in favor? And lots of times, the communities are in favor. Smaller communities, particularly farming communities, a new development like this can just completely transform their local budgets to provide police and fire and community centers and schools, just like nuclear plants have done for decades, and coal plants, as well.

Stone: All the things that we’re hearing about these communities losing, right?

Klass: That’s right. That’s right. And so it’s certainly a tougher sell on the jobs side, because there aren’t a lot of permanent jobs associated. There are construction jobs associated with building these facilities, but not necessarily permanent jobs. But just in terms of revenue and income, it can be quite significant. So then the question is: How do you ensure that these projects benefit the whole community, and the benefits are not just concentrated in the landowners who are entering into lease agreements with developers?

And so there are a lot of different ways to go about that. Certainly developers since the outset have negotiated with local communities, with landowners, as to what types of payments they’ll make, what they are going to do on taxes, perhaps even providing money for reduced electricity bills, so there’s an even more direct benefit from the project. Sometimes states require that. Michigan passed a new law to do that. New York has done that, as well. So there are minimum financial payments per kilowatt of electricity provided. So that’s helpful.

The other thing that has happened more recently is the Department of Energy, which is in charge of giving out most of the money from the two new federal laws, requires program applicants for both the loan programs and for the grants to enter into what are called “community benefit agreements” with communities, and to propose that as part of their application for the grant.

Now this is fairly new, and these companies don’t necessarily know how to put together community benefit plans. There is still a lot of uncertainty around are the right things in those plans? How much is this really benefiting communities? It’s going to take a while to come up with a real template for this. It’s going to have to be replicated multiple times, but it really is to encourage and require developers to engage with the community, see what the community needs, make sure the community is heard and will get benefits from these projects.

Part of the problem is each arrangement is sort of individual. There’s not a good template. It’s not like, “Here’s a list of great things that you should do for the community.” Each community has to figure it out for themselves, too, and particularly with smaller communities, they may not have the expertise and the staffing to do that. So I see the potential for a lot more emphasis on this, and at some point, we’ll get to a place where there’s more of sort of, “Here is a list of types of benefits. Here are the things that developers are going to have to do, and the communities are going to demand and ask for.”

Stone: Extending that conversation on communities for just a moment. Related issues, very important issues are equity and justice. I could imagine a situation where you once had, let’s say, a large coal-fired power plant. That land is being repurposed for some type of renewable energy development. What safeguards need to be in place to ensure that any inequities or challenges tied to having that heavy infrastructure close to vulnerable neighborhoods is not perpetuated through repurposed energy?

Klass: Yes, that’s a great question. This will turn us more to some of the urban and Rust Belt areas. I was talking more about rural areas in answering the last question, but really the same principles apply when we’re talking about maybe more industrial infrastructure that has been sited in environmental justice, energy justice communities. And then the question is, “Okay, we’re going to take down the coal plant. We’re going to take down this industrial facility. But now we’re going to build a big solar plant with a chain link fence around it.” And the community says, “Why is that better? We would rather have housing. We would rather have shops and stores making our community more vibrant.”

Stone: And the ongoing jobs that a coal plant would provide, right? In the past.

Klass: Right, that’s true as well. I think you use the same process, but the strategies are different. You’re not typically, then, going to have big lease payments to landowners, like you have in the rural areas, because you just don’t have as much land. Typically in more urban areas, these are going to be solar and battery projects, rather than wind, just because you need a lot more land for wind.

But I think you still can see these benefits because again, if we’re focused on repurposed energy, these are lands that have been abandoned. They’re contaminated. They’re resulting in existing harms to communities. So part of the benefit is going to be some amount of cleanup of that land that gets negotiated. And it may be that it’s land that is so contaminated that you’re not going to be able to use it for housing or for shops or for a playground. But you could use it for solar.

And then you need to think more about how you are going to design the solar facility to actually make it conducive and of benefit to the neighborhood. Landscape designers and others — I’ve talked to some here during my visit at the Kleinman Center — are working on really exciting projects to make these an aesthetic benefit to the community. There are many ways to build solar arrays and many ways to integrate them into neighborhoods. That should be part of what’s discussed, as well.

There was just an article in The New York Times about wildlife corridors for solar plants in more rural areas that oftentimes don’t get built, even though they’re not expensive. They’re not difficult, but communities don’t think to ask, or landowners don’t think to ask, and developers don’t really know about them. So a lot of this is sort of education and creating projects that are beneficial to communities. Some of that is financial, and there are financial benefits that can be provided, even to urban and environmental justice communities. We can be really creative in how we do community payments. It doesn’t have to be just a lease payment to the landowner. In Europe, the whole community gets money. It’s a shared endeavor, and we could move to something more like that. It’s going to take some creativity, but I think the tools are there.

Stone: So you offer in the paper a list of policy recommendations to support repurposed energy, and they are very specific. There is a financing, what you call “regulatory reduction.” I’d like to hear more about that. And information and data support, which you’ve also talked about a little bit, the states providing some of that support to developers to help them navigate the challenges of siting new infrastructure on repurposed lands. Can you talk a little bit more about these recommendations more generally?

Klass: Yes, so financing we’ve talked about quite a bit. We’ve already seen some examples through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill of additional monies, whether it’s grant monies or tax incentives to projects on certain types of lands that would fall within our definition of “repurposed energy.” We think those could be built upon, and additional federal and state monies going to these types of projects, additional grant programs, additional financing benefits. So that’s on the financial side.

We think even beyond siting reform, and we do think some siting reform and some state preemption of local authority can be helpful. And so one of the reforms we say, “Okay, let’s say you’re in a state where preemption of local authority is just not going to happen. There’s just opposition to that, and we’re not going to do it.” Maybe you do preemption of local authority only for projects on repurposed energy sites.

You say that there’s a state interest in trying to get these properties cleaned up, and also making best use of these properties for clean energy development, so you allow the state, a state agency to have a stronger role on siting, just with regard to those properties. So you kind of do it as a pilot project or as a partial step. We think that’s possible.

We also think other permitting reforms are ripe for adoption, so regardless of whether it’s the state or a local government that is processing the permit, doing any environmental review, a lot of those could be streamlined. Those processes could be streamlined for renewable development on repurposed sites. New York has started to do that. Maybe for projects you have a 60-day time limit, so it’s an expedited time limit for processing all of the permits. And you have additional technical support from the state agency or the local government to just encourage quicker permitting. Or you have a list of requirements that, let’s say a solar facility needs to meet. And if they meet them, they are a permitted use under the local zoning code, just like we do for other types of infrastructure.

So we could streamline and accelerate the permitting process solely for projects that are on repurposed energy sites, and that would encourage developers to use those sites, as opposed to, say, a greenfield site, where they’re going to have to go through the lengthier permit process. The Department of Energy has actually done this to some extent for projects on federal lands. The DOE itself doesn’t do a lot of permitting of these projects, but there were amendments to the National Environmental Policy Act which creates environmental review requirements for projects where there’s a federal action. There’s federal funding. It’s on federal land that requires a federal permit. The NIFA amendments allowed agencies to create what are called “categorical exclusions.” These are projects that typically have minimal adverse environmental impacts, and so you don’t need to do an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement.

Currently, agencies have different types of projects that fall within an categorical exclusion. The new law says that if an agency adopts a categorical exclusion, any other federal agency can use that and adopt it as its own, without having to go through a lengthy notice and comment process. So the Department of Energy recently adopted a categorical exclusion for solar plants and battery plants on brownfields and other repurposed energy sites.

So even though they’re not going to do a lot of siting of renewable energy projects, other agencies like the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, might be. And so they can now adopt that. You’re even seeing that at the federal level. Most of the projects Hannah and I are talking about in this paper are not on federal lands. They’re going to be on private land, so there are fewer triggers for environmental review, but many states have their own environmental review requirements. So states could adopt similar, kind of streamlining, of environmental review or even eliminating environmental review for projects like this.

Stone: Alex, let me ask you a final question here. Are there any reasons for optimism, success stories, that you can recount that really show the potential for repurposed energy to accelerate renewable energy development, clean energy development, particularly in the most difficult places to have this happen?

Klass: Yes, we are seeing more projects on repurposed energy sites. The more that we see, the more there will be a template for others. The key thing here is accelerating and scaling it up. So I think Amazon, which is essentially the largest renewable energy buyer, they just were involved in their first renewable energy project on a closed landfill. And once they’ve done it once, hopefully they will do it again.

Xcel Energy, which is one of the large, investor-owned utilities in Minnesota is retiring its largest coal plant, which is also the state’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. It’s starting that retirement this year, and on that site, it is building a massive solar facility and accompanying long-term battery storage facility. It’s getting some financial supports from the Department of Energy for that — at least for the battery piece of that. But the benefit of building on a project like that is you have all of the electric transmission infrastructure right there.

One thing we haven’t talked about is another hurdle for renewable energy plants. You can build them, and then they have to wait in what are called “interconnection queues” because we do not have enough space on the transmission grid for all the new projects that are being built. I mentioned before how difficult it is to build electric transmission lines in this country, so we actually have more generation that could be on the grid, could accelerate our transition to clean energy, but it’s waiting because we don’t have the transmission. But if you build renewable energy on a site — and particularly if it’s the utility doing it — that has the transmission rights there, in most of the country, you can just transfer those rights over. So it will not need to wait in any interconnection queue. They can connect to the grid right away.

If we see more successes like that, that will hopefully encourage more utilities to build projects like that, if they’re shown to be financially viable, beneficial for the community, and can accelerate and overcome some of the transmission-related problems that we have. We’re also just seeing more and more projects at least being proposed for closed landfills, for other industrial properties. You have to build a lot of projects to get good at them and to bring the cost down.

Particularly in parts of Pennsylvania, in Virginia, in Kentucky that have a lot of lands that have been scarred by coal mining and that are not being used for economically productive other uses, there is starting to be more solar developed there, and you have the states behind that, as well, and supporting that. And so that gets to the information support. The more that states, that local governments, that federal agencies and the national labs can do to make information and mapping tools available to developers, to say, “Here are good sites. We’ve already looked at these, and we’re not concerned about endangered species, and we’re not concerned about prime farmland here. The level of cleanup is sufficient. Here is a site.” These are often called “build-ready sites.” New York and some other states have tried to do it. They’ll do the cleanup. They’ll get the liability assurances and then take bids from developers to do their development there.

I think information support, technical support, permitting support — there’s a lot that can be done there just to reduce some of those additional burdens to building on repurposed energy sites.

Stone: Alex, thanks for talking.

Klass: Yes, my pleasure.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Alexandra Klass, the James G. Degnan Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School, and a Visiting Scholar here at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.


Alexandra Klass

James G. Degnan Professor of Law, Michigan Law
Alexandra Klass is the James G. Degnan Professor of Law at Michigan Law. Klass is a 2023-2024 Kleinman Center Visiting Scholar.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.