"What Gets Measured Gets Done": A Solar Energy Project Analysis for Reforming the Public Land Project Approval Process
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates federal agencies to consider any “significant” impact on the environment a major energy or infrastructure project will have on public lands before proceeding with development. Yet core challenges have stalled the approval process including data synthesis, multi-agency and multi-level jurisdiction, and required public involvement. According to the National Association of Environmental Professionals, the average completion time for Environmental Impact Statements is five years. The opportunity costs associated with delays in development are critical for the transition to a clean energy economy. The Trump Administration has exhibited an earnestness to streamline NEPA approvals of infrastructure and energy development projects. In August 2017, the Administration released Executive Order 13807 emphasizing a lead agency policy and setting a non-binding average two-year goal for processing reviews of individual projects. When considering how thoroughly vetted major project approvals are, restrictive scoping and time limits are serious matters for discussion. In 2012, the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) was established to promote development in the Southwestern region by catalyzing solar energy applications on resourceful lands. Since three projects have gained approval in 9 months’ time. This capstone investigated the quantitative and qualitative merits of investing in solar programmatic planning. Twenty-five NEPA authorized solar energy projects were found to have a positive correlation between their approved power and the time per megawatt (MW) required for approval. The higher the recommended power, the less time each MW required for analyzing. The three environmental assessments tiered from the PEIS were evaluated based on public commentary periods, competitive bidding, and overall process. This capstone found that broad scale scoping rather than time limits will yield best results in streamlining the NEPA process.