US clean energy developers are still celebrating the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) landmark climate provisions this August. The new law will inject hundreds of billions of dollars to speed up the energy transition, including the building of solar and wind farms. At least, that's the intent.
But as energy industry observers ranging from research house the Brookings Institution to Princeton professor Jesse Jenkins have noted, the biggest immediate challenge this transition faces is permitting that hinges on the essential early step of environmental due diligence – which is already a bottleneck for renewables developers and threatens to grow into an industry-wide crisis.
I know because as an environmental consultant managing natural resources compliance and permitting projects across the US for over 15 years, I used to be part of that problem.
Let me explain. Clean energy developers must get environmental permits before they can build – a necessary process crucial to sound project construction and operation. Before they do, they usually hire an environmental consultant to assess the viability of each parcel of land via a so-called critical issues analysis (CIA).
Obtaining a CIA is already a slow, costly process. After waiting several days for a consultant to return their initial outreach, the developer orders the CIA, then waits an average of three to five weeks to receive it. But nine times out of ten, the CIA reveals that the site they want studied is “undevelopable”.
The status quo is to begin the environmental due diligence process after a potential parcel of land has been identified and the landowner has agreed in writing to allow a renewable energy project to be developed on their property. Even with these considerable sunk costs, the odds of the project moving forward are nine-to-one against.
The time and financial costs are considerable. Based on a recent industry survey, the average environmental due diligence report costs $5,000 and takes at least three weeks. The average developer runs 50 of these a year, amounting to thousands of hours and nearly $250,000 – and exponentially more opportunity costs.
Why a CIA is so costly comes down to the way environmental consultants work: they bill by the hour – just like lawyers.
Why a CIA is so costly and time-consuming comes down to the way environmental consultants work: they bill by the hour – just like lawyers. The longer they take to do a piece of work, the more they can charge. Across the sector one sees a lot of busy work, inefficiency, and sloppiness. If another developer wants a CIA for a parcel anywhere near yours, some environmental consultants will simply copy, paste, swap out the names, and charge both developers full price. The incentives for the consultants point in the wrong direction – away from cost-effectiveness – and the developer's project timeline grinds to a halt.
More concerningly , this avoidable inefficiency is now going to get worse. With the IRA’s passage the US must now uindertake an unprecedented deployment of solar, wind and energy storage projects that will all require CIAs – PV alone would need acreage equal to the size of the state of South Dakota for us to meet the Biden administration’s 2030 goals.
In fact, we're now developing more land across all industries than at any time in modern history, putting market pressure on the pool of environmental consultants. But while demand is growing, universities are graduating fewer environmental scientists than are needed to replace those retiring from the profession. Developers unfortunately will pay the price of this labour shortage in time and money.
If we do things the old way, we will never secure the expanses of land we need to build enough clean energy to meet our national goals. We just can't afford to use 1970s practices to address 21st century realities.
Digitalised automation of the process of reviewing project site datasets would allow developers to take a decision on a parcel of land immediately as “buildable” or not, instead of waiting at least three weeks for a consultant’s report. Instead of securing a letter of intent from a landowner, then having the environmental due diligence conducted, developers could determine site viability from their truck before knocking on the landowner's door. This would be a paradigm shift. Technology delivers that possibility now, and those that harness it first have a significant competitive advantage over those stuck in the approaches of yesteryear.
Transect is first to automate CIAs, but won't be the last. Which company does it best doesn't matter as much as moving the industry toward automating key parts of this process. Developers including NextEra and ConEdison already know this and have accelerated their project development while compressing their timelines using automated CIAs. Given the fierce competition for buildable project sites, no developer can afford to let them keep that advantage to themselves – and the US itself doesn't have time to waste in moving its energy security onto solid and sustainable footing.
· Robin Laine is CEO of San Antonio, Texas-headquartered SaaS environmental due diligence outfit Transect. Watch her presentation at the recent RE+ conference here