Another legal tool to advance renewable energy and energy efficiency (RE/EE) is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Created under President Nixon, NEPA requires the federal government to evaluate the environmental consequences of most of its actions. While NEPA is limited to the federal government, many states have laws patterned after NEPA and applying to state-government action.

NEPA requires that a federal agency proposing a project of almost any type must evaluate and document all environmental impacts and alternatives to the project. If the project will not have significant impacts, the federal agency can prepare an environmental assessment (EA). On the other hand, if the project will have significant impacts, the agency must prepare an environmental impact statement. In either case, the agency proposing the project must provide an opportunity for public involvement. Notice of this opportunity for public involvement can be posted on the agency’s website, in the agency’s office, in the Federal Register or in the legal-notices section of a local newspaper.

Because a NEPA analysis is required for major renewable energy projects, like wind or solar farms, on land owned by a federal agency (such as the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management), many people in the RE/EE business view NEPA as an obstacle to RE development. However, NEPA provides many, many opportunities to advance RE/EE.

For example, I read the local newspaper for Baca County, Colo., a place with amazing solar and wind resources. Recently, the U.S. Forest Service began preparing an EA for a new pipeline to provide water for livestock, and a new radio tower. Both of these are excellent opportunities for photovoltaic use, and perhaps for small wind power. One could submit a comment saying that the U.S. Forest Service must consider the impacts from the electricity from the grid to power these projects, as well as the cost of running power lines to these projects, and compare that to the alternative: using distributed power at the sites. The value of these comments would extend beyond these particular projects. Spending a few minutes to submit comments on an EA like this becomes an opportunity to work distributed solar and wind into a federal agency’s mindset.

Robert Ukeiley (rukeiley@igc.org) is a lawyer who represents environmental nonprofits in Clean Air Act litigation affecting energy issues.

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