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A Better Model for Energy on Public Lands

New Administration Plan Goes with a Zone Approach

Tom Kenworthy reviews the Obama administration’s new process for using public lands for solar energy development.

Bureau of Land Management Renewable Energy Project Manager Greg Helseth  stands on the Roach Dry Lake bed in front of a proposed solar energy  site near McCullough Pass, Nevada. (AP/Laura Rauch)
Bureau of Land Management Renewable Energy Project Manager Greg Helseth stands on the Roach Dry Lake bed in front of a proposed solar energy site near McCullough Pass, Nevada. (AP/Laura Rauch)

Some things do improve over time. Among them is the Obama administration’s plan for using government lands to anchor the renewable energy revolution.

Ten months after the Interior Department issued a draft plan for siting large solar energy projects in six western states, and after listening carefully to the views of conservationists, developers, utilities, and others, the Obama administration has made significant improvements.

Last week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and other department officials unveiled the latest version that sets the rules of the road for siting utility-scale solar developments on public land in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.

The revised plan will give the solar industry more certainty, accelerate the critical task of getting many thousands of megawatts of clean, inexhaustible electric power on-line, quickly boost jobs in the solar sector of the new energy economy, and provide more protection for fragile desert environments.

The takeaway: Interior has produced a plan, formally known as a supplement to its Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, that sets a new, more rational standard for managing energy production on public lands and that promises fewer conflicts and therefore faster development.

With the whole idea of renewable energy under attack by fossil-fuel diehards on Capitol Hill, nurturing this transition so it advances quickly, credibly, and responsibly is critical. Once it becomes final next year following more public comment and review, this new solar plan will make it easier to meet that goal. It will provide more of the regulatory certainty that business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have called for in developing clean energy. It promises to also demonstrate that government can do big things and do them efficiently and well.

In great measure because the United States has such a vast portfolio of public lands, we have a huge potential for developing renewable energy projects, many of which must use large areas. The Interior Department estimates that public lands, mostly in the West, have the potential to produce 2,900 gigawatts of solar energy, 206 gigawatts of wind energy, and 12,200 megawatts of geothermal energy.

Even without the new solar plan, the Obama administration had made some steady progress on expediting big renewable energy projects. Acting under a cobbled-together fast-track process in 2010, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management permitted nine solar projects with a total potential output of about 3,600 megawatts—enough to power more than a million homes. This year, another four solar projects with an expected combined capacity of 1,250 megawatts were approved, with five more in the approval pipeline.

Including wind and geothermal, Interior has over the two years approved 22 projects that are expected to create 8,600 jobs.

That was exponential progress compared to the last administration, which never permitted a single large solar project. Salazar’s predecessors at the Interior Department oversaw a deeply flawed, developer-driven process that took solar applications in an Oklahoma land rush fashion that encouraged raw speculation all across the desert Southwest with little regard for imperiled wildlife, Native American sacred sites, and other sensitive areas.

But the 2010 fast-track process also had its flaws. It didn’t always meet the standard of doing it right in the right places in part because Interior had to work with those proposed projects that could meet an end-of-year approval deadline to receive federal stimulus money through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. As a result, several came under legal attack from conservation groups and others that felt the projects had not been sufficiently vetted to prevent damage to wildlife habitat and other resources.

This time, Interior feels it’s gotten it right. Salazar called the new plan “a solid foundation for landscape level planning for solar projects on federal land” that “will avoid and minimize conflicts.”

The big change in this new version is that Interior has firmly embraced the concept of solar energy zones, or SEZs—blocs of public land with abundant solar resources, minimal potential for conflict and litigation, and good access to electric power transmission lines. The zones, said Salazar, “are where the sweet spots are, so that’s where development will be driven.”

That kind of agency planning on a large landscape scale—determining which areas are suitable for development and which are not and directing companies to those that are—should serve as a template for how the federal government manages all types of energy development on lands it holds in trust for all Americans.

The new plan is receiving praise from conservation groups and utilities.

“The benefits of guided development are clear,” said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy with Defenders of Wildlife, one of many conservation organizations that hailed the new approach. “Clean energy can come online faster and at a lower cost to developers and to our nation’s wildlife and treasured places.”

Fong Wan, senior vice president for energy procurement at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, said the new process “will provide more certainty around project development on the front end, by helping to streamline siting, permitting and other potential challenges. It is steps like these that will help increase the likelihood of successful projects, propelling the country toward our shared renewable energy goals and clean energy future.”

Reaction from the solar power industry is more wary.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said “there are some significant areas of concern regarding the viability of a solar energy zone approach,” among them whether it would provide enough flexibility for industry and good access to existing transmission infrastructure.

The Bureau of Land Management’s preferred option in the draft released last year was a plan that would have accepted solar development applications over an area covering 22 million acres. A separate but not chosen alternative was an SEZ approach covering about 677,000 acres.

The revised plan released last week modifies the preferred alternative to emphasize the Bureau of Land Management’s commitment to the creation of solar energy zones. It includes 17 zones covering 285,000 acres. Analysts expect that about three-quarters of that area could actually be developed and produce about 24,000 megawatts of electrical power. Seven zones under previous consideration were dropped because of environmental concerns, lack of investor interest, and transmission difficulties. Four other zones were reduced in size.

Other important features make the plan more flexible and nimble: provisions that allow for the creation of new zones, a variance process for developers who want to build outside the solar zones and can demonstrate they would be workable, and the likely addition of incentives to develop in the pre-cleared zones, which may include lower fees and payments. Also under consideration is a process to make developers bid competitively for sites.

Projects proposed outside the zones would likely take longer and face greater hurdles to winning federal permits. They would also cost developers more because they would have to pay for thorough environmental evaluations begun from scratch rather than simpler environmental reviews that tier off the programmatic environmental impact statement unveiled last week.

As a nation we still have a lot of ground to make up in the global race toward a clean energy, lower-carbon future. Harnessing the huge solar energy potential available on public lands in the Southwest deserts is not even close to the full answer to that challenge. But it’s an important element, and the Obama administration’s plan lays a strong foundation for maximizing the potential for utility-scale solar while protecting sensitive landscapes.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Tom Kenworthy

Senior Fellow