Renewable energy developers get their own watchdog

Chindia Alert
Construction of a solar farm in Gujarat, India.

In another sign that renewable energy is becoming big business, developers of wind and solar power projects are about to find themselves subject to a new layer of scrutiny.

The social impact startup trying to goad oil and gas exploration companies to meet certain levels of socially and environmentally responsible behavior is extending its efforts into renewable energy.

Equitable Origin, founded as a self-proclaimed standards setter for how oil exploration and extraction companies should go about their work without trampling on human rights, harming local communities and destroying the environment, announced this week that it wants to branch out with new standards for wind and solar energy site development.

It’s not that the organization is against renewable energy development, its officers insist.

“What we are trying to do is assist the growing renewable energy industries by helping them not repeat the same mistakes as oil and gas,” Josh Garrett, communications manager of Equitable Origin, told GreenBiz.

He points to several potential obstacles that can complicate — or even end up cancelling — plans for new renewable energy deployments.

“We are supportive of renewables on a global scale and want to prevent the lawsuits that slow down or sometimes shut down renewable projects. That is what we are offering here,” Garrett said. “The legal hurdles are extremely important.”

Growing pains

In the U.S., large wind and solar development projects sometimes get snagged in permitting disputes with local communities or environmentalists because developers haven’t listened to local concerns.

The standards will “enable and expedite renewable energy by avoiding or mitigating social conflict and negative environmental impacts at the local level — a contribution to the fight against climate change we are eager to make,” Equitable Origin said in a statement.

Globally, the number of large scale solar and wind projects is proliferating as energy demand in developing nations grows. About 36 gigawatts of energy are provided by large solar farms built in the last four years, according to WikiSolar, which counts 160 farms operating or under construction that have a 50 megawatt or higher capacity.

Among countries with solar and wind farms under construction — which include China, India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Ghana, South Africa and the Ukraine, not to mention Germany, Spain, Canada and the U.S. — some are not known for their human rights or regulations to protect the environment.

Equitable Origin said it has observed, or been told by NGOs and communities, "that many renewables projects in the developing world are falling into the same pattern as the nonrenewable projects that preceded them: incomplete study of environmental impacts, nonexistent or incomplete consultation with local communities and little to no consideration of impacts on indigenous peoples."

One example is a planned wind energy park on Mexico's Tehuantepec Peninsula. Local groups of indigenous people claim they have not been consulted on the project and yet they fear that, as planned, the park will damage their land and culture.  

"In the course of our work, communities and NGOs often approach us with concerns about renewable energy projects and how they will change the local landscape and residents’ lives,” said David Poritz, founder and CEO of Equitable Origin.

Poritz founded Equitable Origin in 2009, when he was still a college student. He had witnessed and been incensed by how indigenous people in developing countries were mistreated by oil and gas exploration companies that ravaged lands, polluted drinking water and used up resources with little regard for existing populations. 

He spent a decade trying to help Ecuadorean communities whose water supplies were polluted and land contaminated by a foreign oil drilling company. Poritz and an Ecuadorean colleague worked to get changes into the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador to reflect the "rights of nature," as well as protections for indigenous people.

Then he launched his social impact startup, building the EO 100 Standard (PDF) after consulting with regulators, oil and gas companies, communities and other NGOS on ways to mitigate social and environmental impacts of energy projects. 

As the shale oil and natural gas boom evolved, Equitable Origin set out to establish similar social and environmental standards for shale oil and gas exploration through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, called EO100 for Shale Oil and Gas Operations.

Now, in addition to moving into renewables, Equitable Origin has switched to non-profit status rather than being a for profit company. It reasoned that as a non-profit it will be able to enter into partnerships more easily with other non-profits to broaden its work for more responsible energy development.

Setting the bar

The EO100 Standards, first released in 2012 and aimed at oil exploration and development operations, is described as “comprehensive social and environmental performance standard for energy development operations.”  

When it began developing standards for shale oil and gas exploration it used the same foundational core framework and set of principles, and Garrett and Poritz said they will again in developing use the renewables standards.

The EO100 Standards core framework address six basic principles or areas of certification:

  • Corporate governance, accountability and ethics;
  • Human rights, social impact and community development;
  • Fair labor ad working conditions;
  • Indigenous people’s rights;
  • Climate change biodiversity and environment; and
  • Project life cycle management — or not leaving an old mine a mess and bereft of plant life.

Last year, the organization certified the first two drilling sites with its standards, both in Colombia and operated by the Pacific Rubiales Energy company. They produce about 250,000 barrels a day. the company said.

To develop specifics about how renewable projects would adhere to these principles, they said the first step will be calling on key stakeholders to develop a technical addendum to the existing EO100 Standard, much like how the shale oil and gas fracking standard are technical specifications to the existing oil standard. Once the renewables version is drafted, "we'll put the new technical addendum through our consultation and review processes," with a final version expected in 2016.

The incentive to behind the renewable standards, Poritz and Garrett said, is not quite the same as what drove the original check on oil and gas: It's partly aimed to smooth obstacles that keep renewable development from happening faster.

Indeed, in the U.S., some large renewable projects have been snagged by the type of concerns EO tries to certify against. In Massachusetts, a massive wind farm named “Cape Wind” eventually was cancelled after 14 years of battling lawsuits brought by residents and businesses of Cape Cod. 

A huge solar farm in Southern California ran afoul of environmentalists because the intense heat caused by the sun reflecting on the panels was killing off a desert species of turtles.