Clean Energy Industry letter opposes FEMA proposed rule impacting Renewable Construction Codes

Oct. 20, 2022
The federal agency’s Applied Technology Council Seismic Code Support Committee (FEMA-ATC SCSC) submitted the proposal rule contending that more stringent structural loads on these renewable projects could improve grid resiliency

(Editor's Note: The original version of this story contained the incorrect agency in the headline and in a reference within the story. Those have been fixed)

A consortium of clean energy advocacy, construction and development companies are expressing deep concerns about a proposed U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency rule on revising renewable building codes that might negatively impact large-scale wind energy or ground-mounted solar photovoltaic investments.

The letter came from a group including American Clean Power, Distributed Wind Energy Association and the Solar Energy Industries Association and featured more than 300 companies signed on. It focuses on FEMA’s Proposal S76-22, which would raise the structural risk category (RC) of most ground-mounted utility-scale solar and wind projects.

The federal agency’s Applied Technology Council Seismic Code Support Committee (FEMA-ATC SCSC) submitted the proposal rule contending that more stringent structural loads on these renewable projects could improve grid resiliency, a key challenge as climate change forces more extreme weather events.

The group of renewable energy advocates disagrees. They believe that the code change proposal, which could take effect in 2024, would unnecessarily drive up construction costs of utility-scale solar and wind projects without improving grid reliability.

“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 distribution systems,” the Clean Energy Industry International Code Council letter reads. “Both of which are unrelated to structural design loads.”

The FEMA ruling, if approved and put into action, could increase the required risk category from RC I to RC 4 for large-scale ground-mounted solar PV facilities, according to the letter. Most wind turbines in the U.S. are designed and permitted for RC 2 and would be elevated to a required RC 4 standard also.

“These changes would result in limits on the ability to transport the required larger tower sections given road, rail and bridge height and weight considerations,” the ICC letter reads. “It could also create artificial constraints on the height of wind turbines, thus decreasing the electiricity they generate, which undermines project economics and will result in facilities not being built.”

Recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted that average construction costs vary for the primary grid resources being built today-solar, wind and natural gas-fired plants. Those three accounted for 95 percent of total capacity added to the U.S. grid in 2020, the most recent data available to compare.

Read the Clean Energy Industry ICC Opposition Letter here

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The average construction costs for solar photovoltaic systems fell 7.9 percent to $1,655 per kilowatt in 2020, according to the EIA. The biggest cost decrease was for thin-film cadmium axis-based panels.

Construction costs for the biggest wind turbine farms (more than 200 MW) declined slightly in those six years to $1,393 per kW by 2020, the EIA chart shows. The smallest utility-scale wind farms (1-25 MW), however, rose dramatically in expense to more than $5,000 per kW.

Natural gas-fired combined cycle plant construction costs remained fairly consistent at $1,155 per kW by 2020. Combustion turbines, often used in fast-starting, grid-balancing peaker plants, dropped to $636 per kW, according to the EIA.

Most grid industry experts contend that renewable resources are gaining scale and nearing parity with gas-fired generation in terms of installed capacity cost. Nuclear power plant construction is vastly more expensive despite providing carbon-free and flexible generation, and no new coal-fired generation is being built or considered in the U.S.

The ICC Clean Energy letter warns that FEMA intensifying building code requirements on wind and solar would raise the former’s cost by 30 percent or more, without benefiting grid resiliency.

“The net effect of Proposal S76-22 would be the opposite of the stated intent,” the letter reads. “Grid reliability and grid recoverability are not based on the survivability of structures, but on grid planning and redundancy,” the letter asking for opposition reads. “Since grid reliability is already under the auspices of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (a non-governmental, non-profit run by the grid industry), its regulatory forum is where such integrated considerations should also be debated.”

Among the 300-plus companies signing on to the opposition letter include engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch, First Solar, General Electric, developer Invenergy, Kiewit, Pattern Energy, Orsted, Quanta Services, Silicon Ranch, Stem, Target, Xcel Energy and Terra-Gen.

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(Rod Walton, senior editor for EnergyTech, is a 14-year veteran of covering the energy industry both as a newspaper and trade journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]). 

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