Assessing the potential environmental and human effects of deploying renewable energy on private and public lands, along our coasts, on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), and in the Great Lakes requires a new way of evaluating potential environmental and human impacts. Deployment of renewables requires, I will argue, a framework risk paradigm that underpins effective future siting decisions and public policies.
Risk assessment is not a new ingredient to decision making. It has been widely applied throughout the federal government and corporate sectors, though not yet for renewable energy except within specific sectoral impacts areas, such as bird and bat collisions. Developing and applying an integrated risk assessment framework that assesses and compares energy-related risks and benefits are critically needed to make good decisions in a timely way under conditions of significant uncertainty. Of course, risk assessment by itself does not include all the elements needed for complex decisions. However, it provides one body of information and analysis essential for complex decision making. Throughout this paper, we discuss "risk-informed" rather than "risk-based" decision making. Accordingly, we recognize that no generic number exists as the "answer" for setting standards or interpreting regulations on any sector. Risk assessment provides valuable information, but the decision process always reflects "value" considerations that are embedded in the political arena (NRC 2009b). Other issues beyond environmental and human risks - such as financial risks, workforce training and education, federal R&D policies supporting new technology developments, and transmission infrastructure - also must be considered in making decisions.
Evaluating potential risks and making energy decisions requires a sustained program of assessment and research that collects relevant data for each sectoral risk, whether on land or in the sea. (See diagram below for the sectoral risks, e.g., mammal migrations, habitat fragmentation, safety within shipping lanes, and visual effects.) Data collection along, however, will not lead to better decision making. Arriving at a broad and integrated risk profile of environmental and human effects requires an approach that accounts for the scientific evidence, compares other energy supply options and benefits, and considers stakeholder and public concerns.
Every potential wind energy site has a unique set of potential risks (e.g., navigation may be the principal problem at one offshore wind site, community concerns and tourism impacts at another, and land or marine use conflicts at others.) Thus, analysis is needed across risks and sites to discover the principal problem areas or where the benefits may be. An integrated framework also seeks transparency of the major "tradeoffs" of siting decisions for a renewable technology or some other energy supply option.