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Think tank leader says social acceptance of green infrastructure benefits is key

Brian Ross is a vice president of the Great Plains Institute.
Great Plains Institute
Brian Ross is a vice president of the Great Plains Institute.

Efforts are ramping up at the state and federal levels to create more green energy infrastructure. There’s a lot in the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in Illinois to stimulate creation of infrastructure, and advocates are increasingly trying to get public buy-in of what will change the landscape — sometimes literally.

This is called "social license," an acceptance of land use that has broad legitimacy in the community. It's sometimes not easy. An old saying is, "the only person who likes change is a baby a with a wet diaper."

Just ask Brian Ross, a vice president of the Great Plains Institute. Ross said in the early days of oil and coal, those industries built social license to make the case that mining and drilling have a benefit, something necessary for society. There's a similar challenge for wind and solar farms in local communities. It’s complicated to build, he said, because you must tie it to local conditions, not just a broad societal plus.

“The host communities need to benefit from the development that's occurring in their community, since we are asking them to be the host for the next three decades or longer," said Ross. "We need to not repeat the mistakes of our conventional energy system where, in many cases, communities had things jammed down their throats.

"They had no authority over things that left them, sometimes, a legacy of environmental damage, of health and safety problems, of polluted lands, and contaminated areas, they then must carry forward after the use has long left. Social license means let's do it right.”

Ross will be the keynote speaker Wednesday and Thursday at the Illinois Renewable Energy Conference being held at the Marriott hotel in Uptown Normal.

"We do see some significant and very important co-benefits that actually match with the community's priorities in most cases if you site and design the project in a way that is respectful of those priorities," said Ross, adding the benefit not only has to exist, but the community must understand how that benefit occurs.

"Protecting their natural resources, protecting the agricultural soils, recognizing the importance of rural character. These kinds of things, you can actually do them in some ways, that leave the community better off than before you started the project," said Ross.

For instance, a solar farm that takes farmland out of production can reduce runoff and soil erosion. That improves water quality. Ross said some projects have improved water quality so much they can offer water quality trading credits to municipalities that can then avoid building expensive new water treatment plants.

Gaining social license is a work in progress, he said, but the policies that provide grants and incentives for green energy projects come with a need to prove equity or community benefit. He acknowledged a tension between announced government policy that seeks rapid development of infrastructure and the need for local communities to be consulted and to have a voice in regulation.

“Absolutely! This is kind of a razor's edge that we're walking. It is a grand experiment, trying to balance all these things,” said Ross.

He said governments at all levels need to think about what they want the regulatory system to look like because most of the renewable energy development will take place over the next 15-20 years, not next year.

Sometimes, he said, you have to go slow to go fast.

“There is a danger in trying to force the issue now because we have a few places that that are up in arms about having a wind farm or a solar farm in their community. Rather than trying to force it down their throats, because we say we have to deploy deploy deploy is to is to take the time now to make sure that we get it right. So, we build that social license so that we minimize that barrier over time. So that it doesn't become something that is still there in 10 years, keeping us from deploying,” said Ross.

But so far in wind farm regulation and perhaps in solar, Ross acknowledged counties get some say in siting and ruling on special-use permits, but the qualifications for those permits are done at the state level, and taken away from local control. That can run against building social license.

“And I will fully acknowledge the legislation that was passed in January, kind of threw us a curve and all of our work. It did erode greatly the trust that we were trying to build host communities. I think it was politically an experiment. We have yet to know whether it will bear fruit, whether playing those difficult cards will ultimately end up in accelerating deployment,” said Ross.

He said there are several issues that need to be resolved around that legislation and how it works, what control communities have and what they don't have.

“You cannot change the setback requirement from a non-participating home. However, there is some flexibility around things like natural resource areas. You want to protect them. There's a process built into the law that allows counties to go to Department of Natural Resources and have them do what's called an eco-cat assessment. The DNR has no authority to implement that. The counties do have to choose to do it. They can actually still have some authority over what happens in those particular circumstances,” said Ross.

The statute also allows counties to require developers to meet the state solar pollinator standard. He said that allows governmental bodies to negotiate with developers on some parts of projects.

“There's a lot of talk around how the development process should include something called a community benefits agreement. The community used to have authority to negotiate something like that. The siting law has taken a lot of that authority away, but it hasn't removed it entirely,” said Ross.

He said the Great Plains Institute has developed a model solar ordinance, or adapted one done before to incorporate siting rules that will help communities identify how they can still meet some of their goals in the permitting process, without having to feel like a project is being "jammed down their throats,” said Ross.

In other cases, the technologies are still changing fast enough that building social license is not yet possible. Hydrogen, carbon capture pipelines, carbon utilization, and compact or advanced nuclear plants are some of those that may eventually be mature enough to create an economy in which social license can be discerned.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.