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The progressive take on the permitting debate
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The progressive take on the permitting debate

A conversation with Johanna Bozuwa of the Climate and Community Project.
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In this episode, Johanna Bozuwa of the Climate and Community Project shares a progressive vision for permitting reform and the factors that could speed up the US clean-energy buildout.

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Text transcript:

David Roberts

To achieve its Paris climate targets, the US is going to have to build out an enormous amount of clean energy and clean-energy infrastructure in coming years. But that buildout is going slowly — painfully, excruciatingly slowly — relative to the pace that is necessary.

This has given rise to considerable debate on the left over what, exactly, is slowing things down. Much of that debate has come to focus on permitting, and more specifically, on permitting under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

A deal that would have put some restrictions on NEPA in exchange for reforms to transmission planning was effectively killed by progressives toward the end of the last congressional session, leading many people inside and outside the climate movement to accuse progressives of being The Problem. They are so attached to slowing down fossil fuel development with NEPA, the accusation goes, that they are willing to live with it slowing clean energy. And that’s a bad trade.

Progressives, not surprisingly, disagree! Their take on the whole permitting debate is summarized in a new paper from the Roosevelt Institute and the Climate and Community Project: “A Progressive Vision for Permitting Reform.

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The title is slightly misleading, since one of the central points of the paper is that permitting under NEPA is only a small piece of the puzzle — there are many other factors that play a role in slowing clean energy, and many other reforms that could do more to speed it up. I called up one of the paper’s co-authors, Johanna Bozuwa of the Climate and Community Project, to ask her about those other reforms, the larger political debate, and the progressive community’s take on speed.

All right, then. With no further ado, Johanna Bozuwa from the Climate and Community Project. Welcome to Volts, and thank you so much for coming.

Johanna Bozuwa

Thank you so much for having me, David.

David Roberts

This is a hot topic, as you're well aware, permitting and the larger issues around it. And so, before we jump into specifics, I wanted to start with a few sort of broad, call them philosophical, questions.

Johanna Bozuwa

Perfect.

David Roberts

As you know, progressives have been under quite a bit of fire lately, not only from their typical opponents on the right and in the fossil fuel industry, but from a lot of sort of centrists and even a lot of sort of allies in the climate movement. For — I think the general idea is they are too attached to stopping fossil fuels and not yet supportive enough of building out renewable energy. And the mechanisms that they rely on to slow and stop fossil fuels are also slowing and stopping renewable energy. And so I think the general critique is that they ought to swing around and be more pro-building and loosen these requirements, et cetera, et cetera. I'm sure you've heard all this.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yes.

David Roberts

So I guess I'd just start with this question. Is, do you think the progressive — and by the way, I meant to say this by way of a caveat, I'm going to be sort of using you as a spokesperson for progressivism, which I think we both realize is ridiculous.

Johanna Bozuwa

Right, exactly.

David Roberts

Progressives are heterogeneous just like anybody else. There's no official progressive position. But as a crude, let's just say as a crude instrument here, we're going to ask you to speak for that perspective as you see it.

Johanna Bozuwa

Perfect.

David Roberts

So in your opinion, do you think progressives have taken it into their heart that things are moving too slowly and they desperately need to move faster?

Johanna Bozuwa

My answer to that question is that I think speed is progressive. You know, David, I don't need to tell this to you or any of the people that listen to this podcast or even progressives. We're dealing with the existential threat of the climate crisis and lives are on the line. And so I think that as progressives, we do need to take the speed question seriously. And I think what I would push back on is the fact that people have this myopic focus on permitting as the thing that's slowing everything down. And especially when I'm talking about permitting, NEPA permitting.

David Roberts

Right. We're going to definitely get to that.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah. And I just think that when it comes to this question of "Do progressives believe in speed?" I think that they actually very much do. And one of the things that I get frustrated with sometimes, when I hear these arguments like "Oh, progressives don't want to build anything," I think what progressives are interested in is building the right thing. And if we think about the United States and how our energy system rolls out today, we have a real issue that fossil fuels can expand at the same time as renewable energy is expanding. Like when it comes to fossil fuels, we can actually export that.

We are now the biggest net exporter of LNG and crude oil. And I think that progressives are particularly aware that if we do the wrong thing on permitting then we're actually not only expanding renewable energy — and maybe poorly done renewable energy — but also the fossil fuel industry knows how to use these tools so much better than our renewable energy developers. And we are going to see just a massive expansion that we absolutely don't need right now. If we think the climate crisis matters.

David Roberts

What about the argument which goes like this: Fossil fuels are reaching sort of a structural peak and decline. Renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. It's on the rise. So if you just, all things being equal, make it easier to build everything across the board, renewable energy will win that race and so it's worth doing.

Johanna Bozuwa

I just don't think that argument is true, look at how much power the fossil fuel industry still has in making these decisions. Like if we look at who is behind the recent push for permitting reform: It was largely the oil and gas industry. There's definitely some more nuance that's there, but they have significant power to move things and move them faster than the clean energy world. It's a question of when you're rolling back some of these bedrock environmental laws that the pie — it's not that the part of renewable energy in the pie is getting bigger. It's that even if we are getting more renewable energy, the pie itself has expanded so that we're having fossil fuels and renewables expanding at the same time.

And it's not fully pushing out the power of the fossil fuel industry.

David Roberts

Well, then, how about this? And this is the final philosophical question before we get down to some nuts and bolts. Do you agree that there are going to be trade-offs as we pursue speed? This is, of course, the big discussion right now is that if you really double down on speed, if you really pursue speed with everything you've got, there are inevitably going to be some trade-offs, some other progressive values that have to take a backseat. And that might be other environmental impacts. It might be impacts on communities. It might be, you know, name it. It might be that we have to loosen up a little bit on those other things.

Do you think that there are those trade-offs?

Johanna Bozuwa

I think that there are some trade-offs. You, I think, had my colleague, Thea Riofrancos, on the pod some time ago talking about lithium extraction, right? And the fact that if we are going to decarbonize our transportation sector, it is going to take extraction in order to accomplish that. Right. And there are substantial and significant impacts that has in terms of water contamination in some of the most drought-impacted parts of the United States, that is something that we need to be thinking about. And I think what my hesitation is when it comes to so much of this conversation is that we're talking about deregulation as the way to do speed instead of actually talking about planning and coordination.

And from my perspective, it's the planning and coordination that allows us to think through the decisions we're making with a far better sense of what's happening instead of a "get government out of the way, we'll figure it out" project that — it didn't really do great things for the planet. Are we going to do that again and trying to fix it? That seems like a silly mistake to make.

David Roberts

Yeah, that's a really important distinction. I'm glad we get that out up front. Because I hate when we go from, "Yes, there are trade-offs" to therefore "Let it rip, let everything go." As Thea said on the podcast, we can acknowledge those trade-offs and thoughtfully try to minimize them through planning.

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly.

David Roberts

So let's start with this. As you say, there's this sort of what we're calling the permitting debate, quote unquote. Permitting debate is actually a bunch of debates and they're all kind of getting squished together under this notion of permitting. But in fact, there's a lot of things going on here other than permitting. So maybe talk just a little bit about all the disparate things that are now sort of getting lumped together under that rubric.

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly. So I think just to put a point on it, often when people are talking about permitting, they're talking about this unfocused conversation about cutting red tape. But really what it comes down to is where the fight is right now in particular on the national stage is around NEPA. So the National Environmental Policy Act, but wrapped up into all of their arguments are all these other pieces that actually are maybe more of the problem than particularly NEPA. So, you know, four of them, just to start us off, obviously we do have NEPA. That's part of the permitting process.

We have local and state zoning permits, approvals, things like that. You know, going to Georgia County to make sure that you can put something through. Then you have third, these contracts or arrangements that are actually between private organizations. David, I know you had folks talking about internet connection queues — that often is part of the permitting debate, but it's actually about who gets to go onto the transmission that's being built.

David Roberts

Let me pause there because I want to make a point that I'm not sure everybody understands and I'm not even sure we made it in that pod. But the ISOs, the ...

Johanna Bozuwa

Independent service operators. I know I always mess it up. RTOs. ISOs.

David Roberts

Yes, I know. ISOs and RTOs. I could never call that to mind. But anyway, the ones who are sort of running the transmission systems and running these queues are not public organizations. Those are not state organizations. They are private consortia of transmission organizations and utilities and things like that. So it's not something that the state can come in and just directly change. I just think that's worth sort of putting on the record.

Johanna Bozuwa

I think that's a really important point and I think we'll probably dig into this further. But the idea that and I think you talked about this on the pod last time, but there are so many different kind of private actors that are operating within the RTOs and ISOs with not actually a huge amount of oversight, as it currently stands.

David Roberts

Yes, or transparency.

Johanna Bozuwa

Or transparency.

David Roberts

Or accountability, really.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, exactly. And it turns out if we're looking at what's really miring the buildout of renewable energy, a solid amount of it is right there. Is in the interconnection queues. I think it was Southwest PowerPool — takes like eight years sometimes to get the developer to get their project through. And those are for projects that already have their offtaker and have all their permitting in place. So it just feels quite misguided for us to spend all of this time talking about permitting when we could be actually diagnosing the problem —

David Roberts

And you said there was a fourth.

Johanna Bozuwa

— and there's a fourth. The fourth one, I would say, is just operation and construction permits, like some of the pollution discharge stuff that is at some of these more local levels. And those four don't even include some of the other things that stop things, which is like access to capital, utility squabbles, supply chain slowdowns, these whole host of other issues that are just being swept under the rug because it's very alluring to say, guess what? I have the one quick fix to make sure that renewable energy gets built in the United States.

David Roberts

And local NIMBYism. I'd throw that in.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, yeah, local NIMBYism, absolutely. Add it to the pile, exactly. So and NEPA's not going to do things about local NIMBYism in the same way that's the local and state zoning stuff.

David Roberts

Yeah, I think people really want, for obvious reasons, they're frustrated by everything going so slowly and everybody wants there to be sort of like something to cut the Gordian knot, sort of one, as you said, one weird trick. And that's, I think, why people are grasping onto NEPA because it seems like that's one big thing we can argue about and change. But as you say, the reasons here are very disparate. But let's just take a second to talk about NEPA. I go back and forth on this, but is it, do you think the progressive position that NEPA is okay "as is" and doesn't need any changes?

Like, do you think there are problems with NEPA and how it's administered?

Johanna Bozuwa

Okay. My feeling on this is that the case about NEPA is overstated, especially as we describe so many other things, even outside of the permitting process that matters. But if we're going to talk about NEPA, I think overall the projects are going through pretty quickly. There was a new study, actually, this month by, I think, David Adelman that did a really comprehensive look at wind and solar NEPA reviews over the past ten years, and he found that less than 5% of Wind and solar projects required. The EIS, like the Environmental Impact Statement, which is the one that takes the most time usually, can be two and a half years or whatever, but they're going through with categorical exclusions or some of these faster ways to move wind and solar projects through, or just projects in general.

And he found that there was very little litigation involved, which is often like the dog whistle, I feel like, of some of these folks who are calling for permitting.

David Roberts

Yeah, I was surprised when I looked at that study. It's a relatively low percentage of those projects that get litigated after they're done.

Johanna Bozuwa

Right, exactly. And I think if I were to make any improvements to NEPA, the thing I would do is bulk up the administrative state. Jamie Gibbs Pleune wrote a kind of corresponding piece of research to our permitting report where she investigated and talked about NEPA in particular with Roosevelt. But she was looking at another paper and found of 40,000 NEPA decisions that the US Forest Service looked at, the biggest causes of delays were actually from a lack of experienced staff, budget instability, and honestly, delays from the applicants themselves not getting their stuff in on time. So I just feel as if we're going to do anything to make NEPA better, give the BLM, give US Forest Service, give EPA far more funds, training, staff empowerment that's going to actually move these projects even faster through the pipeline when they're actually moving relatively quickly.

And these places have experienced chronic understaffing and lack of empowerment. So there is work to be done there. I don't want to understate that, but I think that it's a reasonable thing for us to accomplish without rolling back and applying a very neoliberal frame to how we get this job done.

David Roberts

Yeah, I would say it does seem like NEPA has sprawled a bit since it was passed. Originally, it was supposed to be major projects that came under NEPA review, and the court basically decided that all projects were under NEPA review. And so there's just thousands and thousands now that just have these little sort of not very long delays because they get these categorical exemptions. But there's just a lot of — it's very sprawling, it seems like, and unfocused. This is one of those areas where I feel like there are procedures of the administrative state that could work better and more effectively.

But at this point, liberals, they've just been under assault for so long. And liberals just know if you open this can of worms, if you open it up to review, there's just a pool of piranhas that want to go in and strip it bare. And so they just don't open it for review. Like, there's so many things like this. Like, if we could have a good faith process of actually trying to do what NEPA is supposed to do better than NEPA does it, I feel like, yeah, there's stuff we could improve, but Joe Manchin doesn't want to improve it.

Johanna Bozuwa

We don't want Joe Manchin in charge of what NEPA looks like and what's the more muscular version that takes into consideration the real-life climate impacts. Because I don't know when you're talking there, David, a thing that comes up for me is the reality that we will have more things happening on the ground. Like, let's say you put transmission in, we have a wildfire crisis. Now all of a sudden, the stakes are higher when it comes to these things like environmental review that are very material that I think also aren't talked about as much as they should be. And so, yeah, I can imagine things being shifted and changed within NEPA so that it works better for the current context.

But I think that, as you describe it, could be a real political problem for us to do that type of work right now. And we have other mechanisms that can move us much more quickly in the interim. Like, is this really the thing we want to be spending our time on as progressives? The answer is no.

David Roberts

And I also think if you look at the reforms that were sort of ended up getting jammed through, like of all the thoughtful things you could do to NEPA to make it work better, just a sort of — page limit, like a page limit on reviews: Seems like it's such a blunt instrument. It's such a crude way of approaching this.

Johanna Bozuwa

Oh, and I think it's going to get them into serious trouble. If you want a thing that is going to increase litigation, try adding an arbitrary deadline and page limit to something with no administrative capacity.

David Roberts

Okay. We could do a whole pod on NEPA, but I don't want to get too — our whole point is it's not the sole or even main impediment here. So at a slightly more granular level, let's talk about what you think is actually slowing down clean energy infrastructure build out. And there's a few categories your report covers starting with transmission, which is, I think, the big one.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, totally. And I would agree with you. I mean, transmission planning is kind of in shambles in this country. It's not up to the job.

David Roberts

Yeah, I don't think literally anybody on any side of anything would disagree with you about that.

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly. And I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that multistate transmission buildouts are incredibly hard to do in a federalized system. We just have so many different actors that are vying to hold on to their particular part of the market, especially with our vertically integrated utilities that don't have much interest in allowing other utilities into their service territory. And in deregulated states, utilities are kind of out of the picture for deciding where new generation is being built. So there's not a lot of efficiencies that are built into that. So we just get this really haphazard development, if development at all, of our transmission system, which I think is just quite a failure.

There are so many clear opportunities to do much more clear planning around this.

David Roberts

Yes. And then what about big large-scale renewable energy projects like big solar, wind, geothermal, what is in practice, slowing down their build out?

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, so I think that when it comes to some of these larger scale projects around solar or wind, you're running again into projects that aren't thinking strategically about where they're being placed. So if we're looking at the amount of land that we're going to need with the energy transition right. Wind and solar take more space up than one natural gas plant. And I think that there's just like a clear lack of land use planning when it comes to these larger scale projects when we could be doing it far better. Right. And thinking about what are the areas that make sense and are going to limit the amount of impact on our landscape and on communities and actually deploy it in those areas.

And I actually think there are answers to that question.

David Roberts

Well, we're not to answers yet. We're dwelling on problems.

Johanna Bozuwa

Okay, all right —

David Roberts

So how does that slow down? I mean, what does that manifest as? How does that slow down the build out?

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, well, the way that that manifests is that you're putting big renewable energy projects in tension with things like agriculture. You're putting big renewable projects in tension with our biodiversity goals. And so those are the things that are going to potentially mire the development and deployment of these larger scale projects — in addition to getting them attached to the transmission and making sure that it's colocated with the transmission we need.

David Roberts

Yes, the aforementioned interconnection queue issue, which alone is like, "That's a lot of years," which as you say, that's a lot of years tacked on the end of all the other stuff they have to go through. Like once they have to go through all that other stuff, then they get in the interconnection queue and wait and wither, etc. And then another thing you take on here is a big piece of the clean energy buildout, which I think a lot of people don't really think about as much, maybe don't enjoy thinking about as much, which is the sort of minerals and metals aspect of it. A big part of IRA, the Inflation Reduction Act, is an attempt to onshore supply chains so that China does not dominate them.

But that means onshoring some mines and some minerals processing which are not necessarily environmentally friendly, not necessarily things people like having in their backyard. So what's slowing those things down?

Johanna Bozuwa

I guess I would say there are two pieces that are happening. One is just that this is a pretty new area and there are so many price fluctuations that are happening. There's all of these big mining companies that are shifting ownership, trying to figure out financing. Right? So there's a lot that's happening there. And mining companies are not the best known for having perfect environmental impact statements or anything like that, that's going to get them mired right. And then you add in the fact that as we talked about earlier, a lot of where these lithium reserves are is also in extremely — like the likelihood for drought is a lot higher if you're looking, for instance, at the Salton Sea in California or, you know, over in Nevada, these are places that we actually have to be extremely careful about. And also it just takes a really long time to build a mine like this isn't something that happens the next day. Right. It's like 10 to 15 years in the future type thing. So it is a longer time frame that's going to be even longer if we aren't thinking, again, about who is impacted, how they are going to be impacted by the mining itself. What is that going to do to air quality, water quality, all of these different things?

It's a really big part of the permitting discussion, or of the transition discussion in particular that is being discounted in the United States.

David Roberts

And one more bit on problems, before we transition to recommendations. I noticed that one thing you don't get into a lot in the report is the expression of those state and local level permitting issues. And a lot of those I think, are tied to environmental review. And a lot — like, for instance, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is just sort of like legendarily at this point, a tool for local NIMBYs to stop things happening. Like we just read a story that was bouncing around Twitter a few days ago about these wealthy people — I forget what county they were in — but they were suing because someone had moved a playground closer to their house.

They didn't like the sound of the kids playing and so they sued. And part of it was that the city had not done a proper environmental review under CEQA of moving the playground. And you hear stories like that all the time. Do you think you said that NEPA is not as big a problem as people say? Do you think state level environmental review is a serious problem, a serious barrier, at least in some places?

Johanna Bozuwa

I think it just really depends on the place. And I think that's part of why as we were writing a national paper, being able to dig into the detail and differentiations between all of these different places seemed like a big haul for a small paper. So yeah, I think that there are these pieces at the local level, the zoning things, right? People are historic preservation boards that are saying like, "No rooftop solar because we don't like the look of it." Yeah, that's some BS in my mind and I think we do need to figure out how to manage that.

And I think what this comes into conversation with is a little bit of like, what is the community review process? What does that look like and how do we manage that?

David Roberts

Contemplating the variety and number of those instruments at the state and local level is really overwhelming and really does make the problem feel so intractable because it's just like, as you say in a federalist system, it's like every bit of reform is not just one bit, it's 50 bits. Every bit is 50 fights.

Johanna Bozuwa

Totally agree. And I think that's why we get stuck in these gridlocks sometimes. And also when we get to solutions, I think there are some examples that we can draw on and utilize our little multi tool of ideas of how to move this forward.

David Roberts

Final thing before that, because I forgot about this bit, but actually it's worth making a note that it's actually easier for fossil fuel infrastructure to get NEPA permits than it is for clean energy projects. It's something you note in the paper. If anything, NEPA is easier on these pipelines and stuff. Even though Joe Manchin is complaining ceaselessly about it.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yes, and I mean, I think that's why in particular, people who have been fighting the fossil fuel industry for so long, look to this group of folks, more center left folks, that are saying "Repeal NEPA, let's do it, we want to build." They're saying, "Oh my gosh. What you're doing by saying that is saying that the West Virginian that I have been fighting alongside is going to be decimated by this pipeline that's being passed now." So there are really high stakes and in a lot of the permitting process that we saw at the federal level, it also implicated the Mountain Valley pipeline.

Right. And that type of infrastructure getting a pass when it couldn't even get some of its permits at the state level to just go forth is a really, I think, scary potential because that locks us into decades of extraction.

David Roberts

Yeah, I feel like that was not covered well when this whole thing happened. You know, the Mountain Valley Pipeline: It's not that it was like stuck unfairly in a bureaucratic tangle. It just sort of straightforwardly was polluting and so it couldn't get the permits, the permits were rejected. It wasn't like stuck in some queue or something. It was just straightforwardly a polluting project that could not qualify under US law to go on. And it was just like jammed through. So I feel like the outrage of that didn't really penetrate partially because everybody's on this like "everything needs to go faster tip" and so they just kind of slotted it under there.

But we don't want things that straightforwardly fail environmental review going forward do we?

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly, like, I would like, that the Cuyahoga River does not catch on fire again. And that's the reason we have environmental review and NEPA. And also I would like it to be able to stop more fossil fuel infrastructure.

David Roberts

Yeah, I know. And this is the other thing too, as though we're supposed to have some sort of content neutral opinions about permitting as such. I'm just like, "Well, I want more good stuff and less bad stuff. Can I have that opinion?"

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly. That's so crucial too, where there are ways for us to stop permitting new fossil fuel infrastructure and permit the hell out of good renewable energy projects. That's a political possibility that Biden actually had signed up for and now is stepping back on.

David Roberts

Yeah, I mean, it's politically tough, but let's be positive here. You have a lot of recommendations in here, all of which are juicy, all of which could probably have a podcast of their own on them. There's no way we can cover them all. But you sort of have your principles and recommendations grouped under three headings. And the first one, which I think is the one that is most directly germane to the speed question, is enabling more coordination and planning. And I think this is a huge thing. This is one of my soapboxes I get on all the time.

I really want the climate movement to take this up is that we've had decades and decades of for lack of a better term, neoliberalism and this sort of instinctive free market stuff. And it's not like any major developed economy actually stops planning. What happens when you claim you're not planning and you claim you're being a free market is you just move planning behind closed doors or bury it in the tax code where no one can see it or understand what's happening. And then that results in whoever has the most power and money winning the planning fights.

So I'm done with my soapbox. Let's talk about restoring our ability to do public, transparent, cooperative planning. Let's talk about a few of the items under here. And first is just land use planning. What do you mean by that and what would it look like?

Johanna Bozuwa

So, land use planning, as we talked about earlier, it turns out that one fossil fuel plant is a lot smaller than the types of assets that we need to build. That's just a reality of what we're working with. And so that necessitates far more land use planning to think about how do we get the most out of the least amount of space that is going to do the best for keeping the lights on. And so there are examples of how we can do this type of land planning. And one example I want to bring up actually is in California.

So there was the Desert Renewable Energy Plan that was basically where states and federal agencies came together and they were looking at the Mojave and Colorado desert area. It's like 22 million acres.

David Roberts

Very sunny.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, very sunny, exactly. Very sunny, very good for some solar. And what they did is that they coordinated a plan for this entire region so that it was prescreened for issues. So they said, okay, we're going to look at the biodiversity impacts of things being put here. We're going to look at the cultural or tribal impacts, the environmental potential impacts. And so after they did that kind of, what's called often like a programmatic study, that meant that the developers that came in to build the stuff there don't have to go through some more involved environmental impact assessment or study because it's already done.

And so that meant that because they had done all of that work ahead of time, projects are getting approved so much faster. They're getting approved in less than ten months. And have, I think it's been now this zone has been around for about ten years and I don't think there is one litigation case. So that is just such a good example of land use planning where it's like thinking ahead of what we need and how we're going to do it. And that still does allow for private developers to come in, even though I might even argue that we could do even more planning and fill in the gaps with some public transmission or public renewable energy.

But we can get into that later.

David Roberts

And we did an example from California, so I think now we're constitutionally obliged to do one from Texas too.

Johanna Bozuwa

Absolutely. Well, exactly. Thank you for setting me up so neatly, David, for the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones of Texas, which was such a success. So this is a very similar situation where the legislature directed the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission to plan where new generation and transmission was going to be located, routed, all of this. And so by doing so, they allowed for this proliferation of wind in Texas, a place where you might not expect a massive amount of wind to be. And I was reading a study the other day that said that in the past ten years, the CREZ line, so the Competitive Renewable Energy Zone, represents 23% of all new high voltage lines in the US.

David Roberts

Good grief.

Johanna Bozuwa

Right?

David Roberts

Yeah. They're actually building I mean, I don't know if people know this, they're actually building transmission in Texas. I'll just talk about how transmission never gets built. They're building it there because —

Johanna Bozuwa

They had a plan.

David Roberts

They planned in advance. Yes, they had zones where it got approved and so you didn't have to then go there and do the entire like a transmission developer didn't have to go somewhere and then do the entire thing. Right. Do the entire review, do the entire land use review and the environmental review. They didn't have to start over every time that stuff was done in advance.

Okay, point made. There more land use coordination and planning. That's the states doing it. But you could imagine the feds getting into that somewhat. You have these jurisdictional issues and federalism issues that are a bit of a tangle, but it does seem like the feds at the very least could do some informational, advisory planning and assessment on a bigger level, don't you think?

Johanna Bozuwa

Oh, absolutely. Actually, we do have a lot of private land in this country. Absolutely. But there is a lot of land that is owned by the federal government. So they're actually implicating a lot of this already. And it makes far more sense for an actor that has that kind of meso level understanding of what we need to build to be involved in those processes and be doing kind of a national assessment of where should those zones be. Like CREZ that's going to have all of these benefits and is going to allow for the most kind of efficient way for us to be deploying renewable energy while also taking into consideration these biodiversity, tribal nation relations and all of these things.

That's a good role for the federal government to actually play.

David Roberts

Okay, we're going to pass quickly by two of these since I've done pods on them. But as you say, one is the interconnection process, which is probably the biggest thing right now, slowing down renewable energy getting built. I did a whole pod on that with RMI's Chaz Teplin a few weeks ago.

Johanna Bozuwa

A fantastic one.

David Roberts

Really encourage everybody to go listen to that. There's a lot of recommendations in there for how to improve the interconnection process, how to improve things in batches. To return to a theme here, a lot of that has to do with just more and better planning on the ISO's parts.

Once again, like, think in advance a little bit and you can skip some of this case by case stuff, but I encourage people to go listen to that pod. Another one, which we've touched on slightly, which I also did a pod on, is just and I think this is so important is just the capacity of the agencies that are doing these reviews. These are at the state level and at the federal level. These agencies have been cut to the bone. They're all, all understaffed, desperately behind, and that, of course, makes things go slower. So all these people who are whinging about reviews, if they're not talking about bulking up agency capacity, I just have trouble taking them seriously because that is the lowest hanging fruit you could do.

But I did a whole pod on that several weeks ago about government capacity and about some of the provisions in the IRA that are meant to bulk up capacity at these agencies. It's just a matter of money and hiring. So we're going to check that one off the list. Let's talk a little bit about this next recommendation, which is about more publicly owned energy and transmission. What do you mean by that? What would that look like?

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, so this is kind of trying to answer the question of building where private companies will not, right? Like, we do have this problem of not having the long-range solution in the mind's eye, right? And we have this system in which there isn't a lot of this coordination that's in the mind's eye of a developer, right? Like, they're focused on their development, whereas the state government, federal government, has a little bit more of like, "Okay, what are we trying to accomplish? We are trying to handle the climate crisis. And that means we need to move as quickly as possible to deploy as much renewable energy as possible.

And it turns out we actually do have some capacity and to actually build this ourselves." And we've done this in the past, admittedly, in a much less dense energy system. But the New Deal is a really good example of this, where the U.S. either directly financed or built itself a massive amount of transmission and energy infrastructure, like the Rural Electrification Administration that FDR put in place. It electrified 80% of the United States land mass in ten years. And when we're talking about the climate crisis, I would like to go at that clip. So I think if there are ways for us where we have a standstill where things aren't getting built fast enough, where can the federal government, the state government come in with a little political muscle and do that building?

And I think that there are additional kind of benefits to doing this too, which include the fact that if you're building public renewables, for instance, you're also probably going to value having higher and better-paid jobs. You are probably going to, in comparison to a private developer, probably thinking a little bit more about some of those community benefits. And I think that there's a real win there that actually kind of creates a baseline for the rest of the private industry in a good way too.

David Roberts

Instead of just nudging and incentivizing private developers to do these things, we could just do them.

Johanna Bozuwa

We could just do them and we can also show them the way a little bit too. Right. Like right now, right. We just have the Inflation Reduction Act. Fabulous. We love the climate investments. It's so great. And also it just largely relies on tax incentives, right. And in those it's like you get a little bit more if you use local steel and if you have high wage jobs, all these things. And we could also just do that, build some public renewables and make it happen ourselves. And also when you have, particularly from a job perspective, right, like a public renewables entity that's building these developments with high wage work, that means that the private developers are afraid that they're going to lose all of their workers.

So then they have to raise their wages too, which is a good thing.

David Roberts

Race to the top, I think they call that.

Johanna Bozuwa

I would love a race to the top instead of a race to the bottom in our renewable energy world.

David Roberts

Yes. Okay, we got to keep moving here. There's a long list. The next one is something we covered, I think, on the Thea Riofrancos post, which is just we know we have to build a lot of stuff, but that's not a fixed quantity of stuff we have to build. Right. We can be more efficient with how we use materials. We can try to build in a less material intensive way. So, you know, what Theo was talking about is encourage more walking and biking and multimodal transportation rather than cars, cars, cars. Like that's a choice. And there are other choices we could make to build a clean, but the less material intensive version of clean.

There's a lot of different ways we can guide things in that direction.

Johanna Bozuwa

Oh yeah, absolutely.

David Roberts

Everyone should go listen to that podcast, too. This pod is like an advertisement for all my other pods.

Johanna Bozuwa

I love it, I love it. Yeah. And just to kind of emphasize, the more that we can invest in efficiency, the fewer transmission lines we might have to build, right? Like if we have a bunch of houses that aggressively go in on multi units. Like, we're having more people housed in multi units. We're creating urban density. We're making the houses that we already have more efficient. All of those things accumulate and make it so that we actually don't have to do the same level of massive deployment, which is a huge win. So we have to — I think it's like questioning some of the assumptions, too, of how much do we need to build.

David Roberts

Right. Maybe not all our private vehicles need to be the size of military tanks and weigh three tons. This segues perfectly into the next one, which I feel like is underappreciated, which is supporting distributed energy resources. Talk about why that's part of going faster here. How does that fit into this picture?

Johanna Bozuwa

So let's say we're able to add rooftop solar to a lot of the rooftops that are around and implement microgrids and put in storage. These are all, again, things that are going to be a lot easier probably to deploy because they're smaller. There's less of this zoning permitting etc. that has to happen when it comes to some of the bigger stuff, where you're going to maybe need environmental review. And so by making those investments in distributed energy resources, you're actually lightening the load again on transmission development.

David Roberts

Right. It's kind of a piece of the previous one, really.

Johanna Bozuwa

Totally.

David Roberts

It's about being less material intensive.

Johanna Bozuwa

Exactly. And I also think the added benefit of doing that, of course, is the fact that we live in unreliable times and it adds additional reliability potential by having things like microgrids deployed.

David Roberts

Yes, many future pods on that particular subject are in the works, are cooking in the Volts oven. Let's go to the second big category here, and this is where I have a little bit of skepticism. So this category is "Enhance community participation and consent." So this is what I want to talk about: You say, let's bring communities in more and earlier. And of course, I think most people, at least most people in my world, when they hear "more community involvement," their palms start sweating. They envision these local zoning meetings with old people shouting at city officials.

They envision nothing ever getting done, everything getting blocked, NIMBY's everywhere. You have this sentence where it says, "Strengthening community participation early in the process will likely move projects forward faster without as much community opposition." Do we know that to be true? I want that to be true. I like the idea of it. Do we know that?

Johanna Bozuwa

Great question. It's worth interrogating. I'm going to borrow a little bit from my colleague that we've already referenced today, Thea Riofrancos, that she often says which is "Sometimes going fast isn't actually fast." So, you know, if we streamline, right, or NEPA gets streamlined or many of these other permitting processes, you cut the red tape and therefore you are steamrolling communities affected by the infrastructure. You're potentially hardening them against the project. And when they feel mad or disenfranchised, chances are they're going to throw the book at you. They're going to throw the book to stop the project. We talked about these arbitrary dates set by some of the permitting system.

You're actually putting yourself up for far more potential litigation and drawn out legal battles because you actually haven't done the work that's necessary to bring that group on side, nor do you have all of your ducks in a row. So I think that there is a justification for defraying conflict and making our odds better at doing that. I'm not saying that we're not going to run into problems and there isn't going to be this annoying mob of Karens that's going to show up every once in a while. But I do think that our odds do look better when we do involve community.

David Roberts

There's a cynical point of view here which says communities are always going to have their Karens. There's always going to be somebody who objects, no matter how early, no matter how much you consult, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't want something near them. The only way in the end to overcome this problem is to take those instruments of delay out of their hands, including the litigation tool, including the environmental review tool, including the community review tool, and just get a little bit more Chinese about the whole thing. Just go do stuff, even if — bulldoze, basically.

I know we want to resist that conclusion, but I wish we knew better. I wish we had better models of moving quickly.

Johanna Bozuwa

So I think actually, since you mentioned the Chinese, I'm going to mention the Danish. And I think that part of this is actually like — we have this problem, right, that we know that deploying renewable energy, deploying clean energy is just incredibly important for the climate crisis. But the benefits are diffuse where the potential negative is pretty concentrated when it comes to these things. And so I think one question we can ask or the permit reviewers or whatever it is, or how we're thinking about developing these projects, is getting in their shoes and asking, what is in it for me?

We can pay people to have some of this stuff, right? So the Danish government in the 1990s was building out a bunch of wind. And so one of the ways that they incentivized this wind development was by incentivizing that part of it is owned by the local government to give them a revenue stream. And that actually helped to limit the controversy. And you'll see that in Denmark, people have kind of higher concepts or like the polling is better for wind. And I was talking with this professor, Nick Pevzner from University of Pennsylvania, who was discussing this really interesting particular instance in which in one of these towns where they were going to be around the offshore wind, they actually brought in landscape architects to design the offshore wind. So that it would be aesthetically pleasing.

David Roberts

The Danes give a shi-, give a dang, about how things look like. What a thought.

Johanna Bozuwa

Huge difference.

David Roberts

Yes, I know. You look at what's the one waste incineration plant in the middle of the town that's like gorgeous. It's got a laser display, I think it's got a ski hill on it. All these kind of things. It seems like we don't care here in the US. How ugly things are. Witness any sort of midsize town or strip mall or the periphery of any city. Everything's just like plain and ugly. Like what if we made things look nice that might improve community —

Johanna Bozuwa

We deserve nice things. Communities deserve nice things.

David Roberts

We can have nice things. And you talk about we should do what's called a "Cumulative impact analysis."

Johanna Bozuwa

Yes.

David Roberts

Again, to me on first blush that sounds like oh, bigger and more analysis: Surely that's going to slow things down. So how do you see that working?

Johanna Bozuwa

Well, again, this kind of takes us to our planning. Right. Like cumulative impact analysis which New Jersey and New York have put in place is this way to discern not just the impact of the project but the accumulated impact of that project and what's already come to date. And I think what you would find in cumulative impact in these places, is that actually it's doing some of what we were talking about before, which is trying to fight off the bad and build more of the good. So that's a way to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure but maybe see benefit around solar or something like that.

These are actually tools that, yes, as you say, at first glance you might think, "Oh my gosh, more? Really?" But what it's doing is assuring some of that larger meso level discerning and also in a lot of ways these are environmental justice tools too. Right. The reason that they're doing that is because it has so consistently been the same community that has had to shoulder the coal plant, then the gas plant, then the pipeline, then another cement factory. Right. And so they're trying to say, "Okay wait, this is out of control. Let's think about where we're putting this and how that's going to burden people."

David Roberts

So the last category here is "Empower a just transition." And I don't think we need to go piece by piece through here since these are very familiar asks from progressive climate people, which is just stop permitting new fossil fuel facilities. Protect the communities that are getting hurt by fossil fuel pollution and set emission reduction targets that will phase out fossil fuels. I think those are all pretty straightforward. I do think the point here, though the larger point you're making with this section is worth underlining because it seems obvious to me, but also frequently left out of this debate, which is if you want to get renewable energy built faster: One way you could do that is through statute and regulation forcing fossil fuel out. Like, nothing's going to speed up renewable energy more than forcing fossil fuels out. Right. It seems so obvious, but it's weirdly left out here.

Johanna Bozuwa

Very weirdly left out. It's a bizarre kind of development that we've seen in the climate realm, right? The IRA, for instance, that is a bill that is great. It creates a lot of carrots, but basically no sticks. And the reality is we need sticks if we're actually going to do this, right, as we were talking about at the kind of outset of the show, we can't let just the entire pie keep on getting bigger and bigger. We actually need to get rid of the fossil fuels. That's the point of what we're doing here. They're the reason that we have the climate crisis.

And so, the best way to get rid of them is to just regulate them out of existence, like eliminate them. And I also think there's a certain amount of private industry hates regulation, but they do love certainty. So what is more certain than a decarbonization mandate that says, like, well, you need to be done by this date? And that actually gets us to more of the displacement than when we just say "Build, build, build just hopefully build the right thing for us, please please."

David Roberts

Yes, I think that's true on several micro levels and it's true on a macro level too. One thing that would help us go faster is if we could just clearly articulate our goals. But we're sort of just hampered by having to beg Joe Manchin for his vote. And to get Joe Manchin's vote, you have to pretend that the whole pie is going to get bigger, that everything's going to grow. That's explicitly the grounds upon which he voted yes on Iraq. He sets it outright. He's like, I voted yes because I thought it was going to grow renewable energy and fossil fuels.

In some sense, politically, we can't just come out and say the goal is to get rid of fossil fuels. That's where we're headed. It would just help everybody, private developers, state and local governments, if we were just on the same friggin page. Instead of sort of like backing into this, we're just backing into everything we do. Trying to sort of like wink wink at one another. Like we know what we're doing, they don't know what we're doing. It's just a bunch of confusion.

Johanna Bozuwa

Right? And I think that it's also a little bit laughable because they obviously know what we're trying to do, right? Like, we're not really hiding the bag. And I think that this speaks to the need for us to be like, this is a 20-year fight, we're not done with the fight the progressive left needs to keep — we can't just have IRA and think that we're done and can wipe our hands. I mean, even this conversation that has come up on permitting shows that people are hungry and need more. And the question is okay, how do we build the actual political power so that Manchin isn't the one that's in the driver's seat?

David Roberts

Yes.

Johanna Bozuwa

I think one kind of last thing on this kind of community consent piece or community engagement that makes me really nervous to tie us back to the permitting realm, right. Is that the people who are potentially going to be railroaded by infrastructure that they don't want is rural America. And if you are pissing off rural parts of the United States right now, that's a very short-sighted game to be playing, right. Because you are potentially taking these rural folk who have just been beaten back again and again, and you're turning them to the right, to a growing fascist right, and giving away a massive voting bloc that is going to be crucial for us to continue to win and win again and keep winning until we actually solve the climate crisis.

So I think when it comes to this kind of larger political project that we're doing on from a progressive perspective, we have to be wary of this idea that this is — not a get it fixed quick scheme.

David Roberts

Yes. We do not want to tick off these particular communities any more than they're ticked off. I think if you talk to Biden administration officials sort of behind the scenes, they will tell you that part of the design of IRA, part of the thinking behind it is we need to flood these areas of the country that were hollowed out by neoliberalism, hollowed out by globalism. We need to flood them with new economic activity and new development or else our democracy is screwed. But it is also the case that you can't just go stomping things down here and there, willy-nilly, without community consent.

They need to have a feeling that they're involved in where and how this is done.

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, we're trying to bring them into the fight for a populist amazing future, and shoving this down their throats I just don't think is the most effective tactic. And if you look back to the New Deal, right, so much of it was workers. It was people that were in more of rural America. There were so many of these folks who were standing up and fighting. And if we're not setting ourselves up for that same kind of sea change, then I'm afraid we're not going to be able to win this thing.

David Roberts

Okay. We are just about out of time. So just to kind of review, this is just, I think the point of your report, point of all this is to say the question of speed is not the same as the question of permitting. Technically speaking, permitting is a relatively small piece of the puzzle here. There's lots of other things we could be doing to speed things up that have nothing technically to do with NEPA or even technically to do with permitting. And we've reviewed a lot of them here, and I would commend people to your report to get a fuller picture of them and to think about them.

But let me finish, I guess with, this is all a vision. I love this vision, but politics are politics and we live in a fallen world, et cetera, et cetera. So toward the end of last session, there was this chance to have a permitting deal, and basically it was these sort of arbitrary caps on NEPA reviews, the length of NEPA reviews and the Mountain Valley pipeline in exchange for some pretty substantial transmission stuff, some pretty substantial stuff on transmission, federal transmission planning. The progressive movement rallied to kill that. They called it Manchin's dirty deal. They rallied, they killed it.

And what ended up happening was the NEPA stuff squeezed through somewhere else. The Mountain Valley pipeline squeezed through somewhere else, and the transmission stuff died. Looking back on that, do you think that was the right political move for the progressive movement to fight that bill? And more broadly, do you think the progressive movement is prepared to sort of make the political trade-offs which are going to be necessary since a lot of this stuff that you list in your report is just going to be very difficult with today's current political distribution of power?

Johanna Bozuwa

Yeah, great question, and I think my answer is that the progressive movement still did the right thing. We needed to fight — or the progressive movement folks who were in those fights needed to fight off and make very clear the MVP is not something that we can have — this permitting that's going to expand. It was a big toad to swallow. And I think if we look at some of the transmission stuff, like, sure, it was fine. Was it the things that we were fully looking for? I think it was Hickenlooper's bill, big wires that was in some of those kind of final fights, right.

With the Fiscal Responsibility Act, his bill included something like a 30% interregional transfer. The DOE says we need a 120% increase in interregional transfer. That's just not even at the scale that we need, and we'd be giving up so much for it. So, yeah, we didn't fully win that fight, but I think that from what I'm hearing, kind of at the congressional level, there is the potential for another bite at the apple on transmission. There is still some, as we said earlier, right, everyone agrees that transmission is a boondoggle right now and a hot mess. So I think that should be one of the things that we're thinking about as the progressive movement.

How do we do that? Right? But I don't think I would go back in time and say "Eh, we should just accept Manchin's deal." I think that it was an important political flag to stamp in the ground that, no, we actually don't believe that we should be expanding fossil fuels and renewable energy at the same time because that's not what we need to do. Saying all that, I do think there are things that we can be doing right now to advance transmission. For instance, FERC is looking at some of these interconnection issues right now. Biden should not rest on his laurels until he gets someone approved and appointed to the FERC board.

David Roberts

Hey, there's Joe Manchin again being a jerk.

Johanna Bozuwa

I know, it's so true. But there are things and again, we've already talked on this pod about stuff that can be done at the state level, too. We still have some cards to play in our hand to accelerate and prove our case increasingly and build the case for more federal implementation, too.

David Roberts

Johanna, thanks so much for coming on. I feel like lately the progressive environmental left has appeared in mainstream media and social media more as a weird caricature viewed from a distance than been able to speak for itself. So I'm glad to be able to have you on so we can talk through a little bit about how progressives see this and the larger issues at play and their specific recommendations, all of which I think are great. So people should check out your report. And thanks for sharing your time with us.

Johanna Bozuwa

Thank you so much for having me today, David. It's lovely.

David Roberts

Thank you for listening to the Volts podcast. It is ad-free, powered entirely by listeners like you. If you value conversations like this, please consider becoming a paid Volts subscriber at volts.wtf. Yes, that's volts.wtf so that I can continue doing this work. Thank you so much, and I'll see you next time.

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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)