Clean energy companies warn building standard change threatens wind, solar projects

Dive Brief:

  • A Federal Emergency Management Agency advisory panel proposal that would increase construction standards to help ensure wind and solar projects operate through extreme weather would unnecessarily drive up costs, likely dooming some projects, clean energy companies and trade groups said Tuesday.
  • They urged International Code Council members to vote against the proposal, which would place most ground mounted large-scale solar and wind projects in Risk Category IV, the highest risk category, according to a letter from more than 300 clean energy companies to ICC voters.
  • “The stated goal of FEMA’s proposal is increased grid reliability, but when you needlessly make it harder to build resilient clean energy, the obvious effect is a reduction in reliability,” Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, one of the groups signing the letter, said in a statement. “This overreach is being made in an opaque process without input from experts on economic impacts, electric reliability and climate change.”

Dive Insight:

SEIA, the American Clean Power Association and the Distributed Wind Energy Association are leading a push against the proposed building code standard, S76-22, which was developed by FEMA’s Applied Technology Council Seismic Code Support Committee.

The proposal is part of the ICC’s building code development process for 2024 codes. The ICC voting started Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 1. The council sets U.S. building code standards, which include risk categories.

The proposal’s proponents contend elevating public utility generation to Risk Category IV, a category given to essential service facilities, will help ensure there is power after earthquakes, storms and other extreme weather events.

“Water and power are vitally important in the hours and days following a damaging earthquake, hurricane, or winter storm,” David Bonowitz, who represented the FEMA-ATC Seismic Code Support Committee, said in support of the proposal, according to a mid-September summary of all the proposed code updates. “The facilities that provide these services to the public are therefore essential and should be assigned to Risk Category IV.”

The committee contends that increasing structural loads on all public utility facilities providing power generation will increase grid reliability, leading to fewer power outages, according to the renewable energy groups.

“However, Proposal S76-22 is written by structural engineers, not grid reliability experts with experience in the core factors of grid resiliency and the interaction of the power generating facility and transmission and distribution systems; both of which are unrelated to structural design loads,” the groups said in the letter.

About 95% of large-scale ground-mounted solar facilities are designed, permitted and inspected as Risk Category I, according to the letter. The proposal to increase the standard to Risk Category IV could make many potential projects unviable, especially in areas with hurricanes and heavy snow, the renewable groups said.

The proposal would increase the amount of material needed to build wind turbines, potentially increasing their costs by about 30%, according to the letter.

Claims the increased costs could prevent projects from being built are “far-fetched,” according to Bonowitz.

“Every industry or user group whose facilities have been assigned to [Risk Category] IV has made the same objection … and then has moved forward to develop design criteria and to innovate structural solutions,” Bonowitz said. “We have full confidence that the PV and wind energy industries, as well as other power and water infrastructure organizations, can and will do the same.”

The clean energy trade groups and companies urged ICC voters to approve a compromise framework put forward by SEIA and supported by the DWEA. The alternate proposals include a carve-out for solar projects to be designated as Risk Category II. “It balances a significant increase in the structural requirements for solar facilities with enough breathing room for project construction to move forward,” the groups and companies said in the letter.

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