A brief overview of the environmental impact assessment process for renewable energy projects


Renewable energy is a key component of the global transition to a low-carbon economy. Renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and biomass, can provide clean and sustainable power for various sectors and applications. However, renewable energy projects are not without environmental impacts. Depending on the location, scale, and technology of the project, renewable energy development can affect the natural and human environment in various ways, such as land use, water resources, wildlife, air quality, noise, visual aesthetics, and cultural heritage. Therefore, it is important to assess and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of renewable energy projects before they are implemented. This is where the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) comes in.

What is NEPA?

NEPA is a federal law enacted in 1970 that requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental effects of their proposed actions and to consider alternative actions that would avoid or minimize adverse impacts. NEPA also requires federal agencies to involve the public and other stakeholders in the decision-making process and to disclose environmental information to the public. NEPA applies to any federal action that may have a significant impact on the environment, such as issuing permits, funding, or approving projects. NEPA does not mandate a specific outcome, but rather a process of informed and transparent decision-making.

How does NEPA apply to renewable energy projects?

Many renewable energy projects require some form of federal involvement, such as obtaining permits from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), receiving grants or loans from the Department of Energy (DOE) or the Department of Agriculture (USDA), or interconnecting to the federal transmission system. Therefore, these projects are subject to NEPA review and must prepare an environmental document that analyzes the potential impacts and alternatives of the project. The level of detail and analysis required for the environmental document depends on the significance of the impacts. There are three types of environmental documents under NEPA: categorical exclusions (CEs), environmental assessments (EAs), and environmental impact statements (EISs).

  • A CE is a type of action that has been determined by the federal agency to have no significant impact on the environment and therefore does not require further analysis. For example, some small-scale renewable energy projects on previously disturbed lands may qualify for a CE.
  • An EA is a concise document that provides sufficient evidence and analysis to determine whether a proposed action would have a significant impact on the environment. If the EA concludes that the impact would not be significant, the federal agency issues a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) and the NEPA process is complete. If the EA concludes that the impact would be significant, the federal agency must prepare an EIS.
  • An EIS is a comprehensive document that analyzes the environmental impacts of a proposed action and its alternatives in detail. The EIS also identifies and evaluates mitigation measures to reduce or eliminate adverse impacts. The EIS process involves several steps, such as scoping, public comment, draft EIS, final EIS, and record of decision (ROD). The ROD is the final step of the NEPA process and documents the federal agency’s decision and the rationale behind it.

Why are NEPA reports necessary for renewable energy development?

Should a project have federal involvement, NEPA reports are necessary for renewable energy development for several reasons. First, NEPA reports ensure that the environmental impacts of renewable energy projects are identified, assessed, and mitigated in a systematic and transparent manner. This helps to avoid or minimize potential conflicts, delays, and lawsuits that may arise from environmental issues. Second, NEPA reports provide an opportunity for public participation and stakeholder engagement in the decision-making process. This helps to increase the social acceptance and legitimacy of renewable energy projects and to address the concerns and interests of the affected communities and groups. Third, NEPA reports facilitate the coordination and cooperation among federal, state, tribal, and local agencies and entities that have jurisdiction or interest in renewable energy development. This helps to streamline the permitting and approval process and to avoid duplication and inconsistency of environmental requirements. Fourth, NEPA reports contribute to the advancement and improvement of renewable energy technologies and practices by providing valuable data and information on the environmental performance and impacts of renewable energy projects. This helps to inform and guide future research, development, and innovation in the renewable energy sector.

Although a NEPA report is only required for projects with federal involvement, many developments voluntarily elect to complete the NEPA review process, or follow a similar environmental review process, to pinpoint environmental limitations to keep the project within budget and on schedule.


For projects with federal involvement, NEPA reports are an essential part of the environmental impact assessment process for renewable energy projects that involve federal actions, however can be very useful even for those projects without federal involvement. NEPA reports provide a framework and a tool for evaluating and addressing the environmental effects of renewable energy development in a comprehensive and transparent manner. NEPA reports also serve as a platform and a mechanism for public involvement and stakeholder collaboration in the decision-making process. NEPA reports are useful for ensuring that renewable energy projects are environmentally sound and socially acceptable.