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Designing for Just and Multifunctional Energy Landscapes
By Nicholas Pevzner, Yekang Ko, and Kirk Dimond, ASLA
Renewable energy is a central element in the Biden administration’s climate plans, a response to President Joe Biden’s campaign goal of a 100 percent clean grid by 2035 and the promise of 10 million well-paying green infrastructure jobs. Renewable energy and the power sector must play a central part in this plan if the United States is to meet Biden’s ambitious new national climate target. The goal, released on Earth Day as part of a virtual international climate gathering ahead of the COP26 Climate Change Conference, is to achieve a 50 percent reduction in climate emissions by 2030 measured against 2005 levels. And clean energy transmission, generation, and storage have a major presence in the American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal now making its way through Congress. All of this renewable energy would represent a major transformation of the landscape. What would it mean for landscape design, and what would the designer’s role be in such a major overhaul of the energy sector?
This clean energy transition is already under way—even if the federal government were to completely back away from any new clean energy initiatives, we can expect that actions by the private sector, such as corporate power purchase agreements (PPAs), which let companies contract with specific energy generators to buy energy directly from them, will lead to the construction of many new renewable energy facilities throughout the country as companies try to meet their internal climate commitments. A number of states and municipalities, including California, New York, and New Mexico, have committed themselves to 100 percent clean electricity targets through binding legislation. Last year, the bipartisan year-end omnibus spending package, which was signed into law in the final days of 2020, provided $35 billion in support of clean energy and climate action.
But the success of the clean energy transition will depend on the speed and scale with which new renewable infrastructure can be deployed and how much opposition and backlash it engenders. Renewable energy is politically popular in general, with increased investment in clean energy enjoying bipartisan support according to polls. Less well understood is how all this will affect vast swaths of the American landscape, but we can be sure that the spatial impacts will be dramatic—more renewable energy facilities closer to where people live, work, and play. Conflicts over land use might be the most challenging piece of the puzzle for building out clean energy at scale, and large infrastructure projects have historically faced backlash and animosity. Multiple studies have identified community opposition to visual and land-use impacts of wind, solar, and transmission projects as one of the most likely bottlenecks on the path toward a net-zero America.
How can designers promote a rapid energy transition that avoids these bottlenecks, while supporting a cleaner and more just economy? Landscape architects must get ready to welcome this renewable energy build-out—to defend it in the face of inevitable opposition, to address communities’ legitimate concerns, to improve it, and to help coax it into being.
Energy Infrastructure and the Built Environment In the American Jobs Plan
The existing state-level and private sector initiatives on renewable energy could get a major boost at the federal level thanks to the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan. The fate of this plan ultimately rests with Congress, and the final form of this legislation is still being debated at the time of this writing. But as originally proposed by President Biden in March, this is a far-reaching plan for major investments in American infrastructure that covers traditional infrastructure categories like transit, bridges, and ports—but also social infrastructure such as affordable housing and expanded support for care services and home care workers. From the point of view of energy and the nation’s decarbonization goals, its importance is enormous. It represents “the country’s one shot to pass meaningful climate legislation in the next few years, if not in the next few decades,” as Robinson Meyer has written in the Atlantic.
Some of the components of the plan fall outside designers’ scope: things like replacing lead pipes and upgrading failing wastewater systems, which are essential health and safety moves that make plain sense and are long overdue, but don’t fundamentally rethink the form of the city or carry much of a design agenda. Other things can be better classified as industrial policy—for example, research and development funding, demonstration projects for fledgling new industrial processes like blue hydrogen or low-carbon steel and concrete production, support for semiconductor manufacturing, or incentives to make electric vehicles more affordable. Similarly, some of the provisions like the funding for upgrades to highways, rail safety, or repairs to more than 10,000 bridges are rather straightforward engineering questions.
But for many of the plan’s other categories, the transformations to the built environment are more intriguing and offer clear opportunities to improve the form of the city toward more just outcomes. Take the $20 billion proposal to reconnect neighborhoods severed in the past by previous transportation projects—if this manages to avoid getting cut from the final plan, then here is a major multicity project with clear design justice parameters, asking for concrete fixes that could help heal communities unjustly affected by urban renewal, a massive undertaking that demands a lot of design attention and urban design thinking. Or the $20 billion for road safety, focused especially on safety for pedestrians and cyclists—here too is an urban design project that hopefully incorporates traffic engineering with public space design and landscape skill sets.
Even the extensive set of proposals for affordable housing and building upgrades, which at first glance is squarely aimed at architects and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers, touches landscape architecture. This includes everything from how and where new affordable housing could be built (the plan would reward municipalities that eliminate their exclusionary zoning laws, whose contribution to the housing crisis and to the squeezing of communities of color is hard to overstate) to how upgrades to social housing could help these campuses better integrate with their surrounding neighborhoods and support stronger social ties through better space design. Or the $100 billion to modernize public school buildings so that they can “become environments of community resilience with green space…and safe places to gather, especially during emergencies”—just one of the various projects in the plan that could put designers to work on resilience for vulnerable communities.
But the most direct impacts for climate action and emissions reduction are in the $100 billion in electrical infrastructure that includes plans for building thousands of miles of new transmission lines, in the support for electric vehicles (EVs) and electric buses, the $52 billion in domestic manufacturing that specifically calls for clean energy, and the $46 billion for increasing clean energy production, innovation, and procurement using the purchasing power of the federal government—with specific attention on EVs, charging ports, and electric heat pumps (alongside advanced nuclear reactors). The plan also calls for a new Grid Deployment Authority at the Department of Energy that could better leverage existing rights-of-way along roads and railways for transmission lines—a perfect opportunity for designing better multipurpose infrastructural corridors. And it looks to unlock an expansion of clean energy generation and storage through 10-year extensions of tax credits and the issuing of clean energy block grants, while also proposing to establish an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard, the most transformative piece of the legislation by far from an emissions perspective. A national Clean Electricity Standard would dramatically accelerate the decarbonization of the grid with a mix of carrots and sticks, much as renewable portfolio standards already do at the state level.
The American Jobs Plan captures the scale of both the climate problem and the opportunity for more equitable economic stimulus, and offers a good crosscutting attempt to intersperse the promises of the clean energy economy throughout the many sectors and communities that will be affected. Yet, for all the attention to detail, the success of its provision will be determined by the specific programs that will or won’t get funded; the scale and speed of the investments and how they’re distributed across an uneven economic, racial, and political landscape; and the physical manifestations of the infrastructure that actually gets built, how, by whom, and in whose communities.
Design Principles for the Energy Transition
Energy infrastructures have always represented major landscape interventions, be they hydroelectric dams or fossil fuel extraction landscapes, and this energy transition to renewables will be no different in that regard. Renewable energy will have a big impact on the land—whether solar, wind, or expanded electrical transmission and storage. In fact, renewable energy development has already been the largest driver of land-use change in the United States in the past decade. Yet it’s just a fraction of what is needed: A recent comprehensive study found that in order to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, at least 228,000 square miles could be needed for new renewable energy facilities by midcentury—or the combined area of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Tennessee. Another recent study found that renewable energy will need to account for 50 percent of electricity by 2030 to meet Biden’s carbon emissions goal.
Early examples of large-scale renewable deployment across the United States have resulted in land-use conflict, leading to some classic cases of “green-on-green” battles—places where conservationists and climate hawks, both coming from the environmentalist side of the political spectrum, have butted heads. Many such conflicts took place on public lands in the Southwest over impacts to threatened and sensitive desert species. Other flashpoints have emerged over visual impacts to farmland and rural vistas. These conflicts are more intense where states have set aggressive clean energy goals, such as California and Hawaii. We believe that such conflicts are unfortunate and unnecessary, and that renewable energy can easily coexist with both wildlife habitat and rural farmland, but only if it incorporates social, cultural, and ecological values through careful engagement with locals
Historical examples of federal energy development—from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to President Barack Obama’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act—have often resulted in aggressive top-down energy siting policies that don’t incorporate local input or adjust for local conditions. Imagining the parallels for upcoming energy development, we see a need to avoid the kind of widespread pushback that might slow down the adoption of renewable energy projects precisely when they need to be accelerating if we are to meet our climate goals.
Active participation by designers will be essential to the success of this agenda. Designers have a critical role to play in ensuring that energy landscape transformation is rapid, site-sensitive, and well-received—and that it does not sacrifice social, cultural, and ecological values. As landscape architects who have studied previous battles over renewable energy landscapes, we contend that any national initiative to dramatically expand clean energy needs to come with a landscape agenda that preserves and facilitates placemaking within the energy transition. We offer this call to action to the landscape profession to champion design leadership toward a rapid and just energy transition—and propose a set of principles that can support this shift:
—The design of renewable energy deployments should prioritize the sharing of land uses. Energy production need not be the only output for land devoted to renewable energy systems, and it should be multifunctional whenever possible. This is already the case with some energy infrastructure, such as wind development alongside farmland and pasture, and can be extended to many more co-located uses and landscape typologies.
—Renewable energy deployments should be regionally sensitive and place-based, reflecting the feel and scale of the nearby scenery. Energy infrastructure can be designed so as to enhance and amplify parts of the existing cultural landscape—as can be seen, for example, in the Netherlands, where the landscape architects H+N+S have helped to intentionally arrange wind turbines to reflect the clean lines and regular rhythms of the Dutch agricultural landscape.
—Renewable energy development should include early and proactive public engagement in the siting process. Successful projects have employed least-conflict solar development mapping and landscape-scale spatial planning and have undertaken extensive multistakeholder engagement and participatory scenario-building to head off and resolve conflicts.
—Deployments should proactively take ecological impacts into account. A good approach can be seen, for example, in the California Desert Biological Conservation Framework, which balanced energy development with habitat connectivity, areas of limited access, and high-quality and intact natural communities, while prioritizing the preservation of irreplaceable and threatened biological resources. If clear conservation goals are set and low-conflict areas identified, the greatest number of alternatives can be explored early in the process, and fewer land-use conflicts are likely to occur.
—Projects should incorporate progressive labor practices and ownership structures that empower local communities. The principles of energy democracy must be incorporated into renewable energy projects to assure that communities benefit financially from projects in their backyards. This means supporting local public or cooperative ownership whenever possible, privileging participatory democratic control over energy, and prioritizing union labor to ensure that these new energy jobs are good green jobs.
Designers can contribute to reducing conflict and opposition to renewable energy projects by carefully co-locating energy infrastructure with complimentary land uses and designing multifunctional energy landscapes with community participation. Landscape intelligence is needed in untangling scenic concerns from environmental impacts, and zoning issues from questions of landscape character. Designers could be working with communities with good renewable energy potential, located near transmission lines and substations, to develop clear land-use plans that are attractive to energy developers while also incorporating community members’ aspirations for their nearby landscape character (an especially salient concern for communities that depend on their nearby landscapes for tourism income). Interpretive public access to and through energy landscapes, if designed with care from the get-go, can head off situations where energy developers simply fence off land in the name of security.
Deconflicting the zoning and land use of potential energy landscapes is one element of design consideration, but so are alignment, scale and rhythm, angle of approach, and how the edges are detailed—the spaces where people will most often see and interact with these places. Designers could use a systems thinking approach to analyze the complex interrelationship of conflicts around the project and to link engagement to multifunctional landscape design. This engagement needs to be proactive and sustained: We need energy developers and policy makers to include designers at all stages of energy infrastructure projects—from conception to implementation.
Examples of landscape architects working with energy developers and municipalities are plentiful abroad, but are exceptions in the United States, where energy tends to stay in the domain of engineers and financial consultants. Design integration with renewable energy has resulted in some of the most striking and well-loved energy landscapes in Northern Europe, including the Middelgrunden offshore wind turbine array in Copenhagen and the many solar photovoltaic rooftop deployments in Germany. In the United States, the Solar Strand project at the University at Buffalo by the landscape architect Walter Hood, ASLA, represents a promising integration of landscape design with energy development, with its bold hybridization of 5,000 photovoltaic panels with a meadow landscape that features a diversity of fauna, flora, and educational experiences. It’s a rare example of an energy landscape that lets visitors walk through the middle of a solar array along a set of unrestricted walkways, to see the panels up close and at work—but designers are rarely included early enough in the energy planning process to help determine the spatial organization.
Aside from improving social acceptance and reducing opposition, careful design consideration during renewable energy planning can unlock many more opportunities for renewable energy development. Examples of energy co-location abound—solar panels coupled with agriculture or pollinator habitat, covering canals and brownfields, and integrated into existing civil infrastructure, to name a few—and are achievable with some attention to detail. Design can reveal the multifunctional productive potential of rooftops—solar green roofs on big box retail stores and residential buildings that could reduce urban heat islands and irrigation demands and provide higher energy generating efficiencies, while making communities more resilient and biodiverse. When solar is combined with agriculture and gardens, such “agrivoltaics” have co-benefits in increasing crop productivity while cooling the solar panels through evapotranspiration. There are opportunities for energy-integrated transportation corridors, solar shade structures over parking lots and in the public right-of-way, and myriad other underused surfaces throughout the built environment—but these will only happen if designers are plugged into the energy decision-making process.
Renewable energy will be the defining feature of the new decarbonizing landscape worldwide, and designers need to advance bold and exciting visions for its successful deployment at all scales. We need designers to take a seat at the table during the planning of renewable energy projects to ensure that they land in the most interesting and sensitive way possible. We also need designers to engage with these projects and the policies that support them, from initial conceptualization through the subsequent repowering of these sites once the original energy infrastructures have served out their useful lives. More than preventing NIMBYism and discomfort with vast new energy infrastructures, designers can design for multifunctionality and tackle linked infrastructural challenges in ways that resonate with people’s desires of what they want to see in their backyards, and that rekindle the public imagination.
We cannot wait for energy developers’ invitation, even as the value of community participation in infrastructure design is slowly becoming better understood at energy companies. Instead, designers must proactively partner with municipalities to help cities and towns prepare for the inevitable influx of renewable energy projects, identifying good shovel-ready sites that can welcome multifunctional energy landscapes, and developing compelling energy landscape plans for these locations. From cities and their complex systems to rural and wild lands and their vast expanses, we need a new generation of architects, landscape architects, and planners proactively using their design skills in the service of dramatic, multifunctional, and equitable energy landscapes, paving the way for a Just Transition to a clean energy future. Including a role for design in the Biden infrastructure package would be a good start.
Nicholas Pevzner is an assistant professor in landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and a faculty fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
Yekang Ko is an associate professor and director of the Bachelor of Landscape Architecture program at the University of Oregon and the director of the Sustainable Cities and Landscapes program of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities.
Kirk Dimond, ASLA, is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona researching integrating solar photovoltaics into the urban landscape through land use co-location.
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This presents a provocative viewpoint on the significance of taking social justice and equity issues into account when designing energy landscapes and emphasizes the function of design in developing a more just and equitable energy system, one that benefits the environment as well as all members of society.