A Better Model For Energy On Public Lands

By Tom Kenworthy, Center for American Progress

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.

image via Shutterstock

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.”

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.