BLM Wants Solar, Wind To Pay To Play

Are big solar and wind – like oil and gas – ready to compete to use resources on federal lands? The U.S. Department of the Interior thinks so, announcing that the industry and the public have until Feb. 27 to comment on how the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might go about implementing a competitive lease process for the two big forms of clean energy.

Under President Obama, the BLM has been handing out approvals for renewable energy right-of-ways at record pace. As EarthTechling’s Susan Kraemer recently wrote, the Obama administration’s BLM has approved 27 utility-scale renewable energy projects amounting to 6.6 gigawatts (GW) of generating capacity: 16 solar projects, four wind farms and seven geothermal plants. The approvals have come under an accelerated process that requires environmental review and sign-off from other agencies, but no competitive bidding to gain the rights to a site (although rent is charged if a project is developed). It’s basically first come, first served.

BLM solar leasing proposal

image via California Energy Commission

But in an “Advance Notice of Public Rulemaking” [PDF], BLM said it “believes that a competitive process would enhance its ability to capture fair market value for the use of public lands,” as required by law, while ensuring “fair access to leasing opportunities for renewable energy development.” The acknowledgement that BLM might not be getting all it can for the use of public lands by solar and wind developers was notable given that a recent Department of Defense study on possible development of military base land in the California desert concluded, “BLM’s solar land lease rates could increase substantially and still provide an attractive rate of return for private developers.”

BLM said the rules it is considering “would establish competitive bidding procedures for lands within designated solar and wind energy development leasing areas, define qualifications for potential bidders, and structure the financial arrangements necessary for the process.”

The idea of designating areas for development isn’t new. “Solar energy zones” – which the BLM sees as “areas that have been identified as the most appropriate for development because they contain the highest solar energy potential and fewest environmental and resource conflicts” – were proposed by the administration in 2010, then revised in October 2011, with BLM trimming the number of zones in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah from 24 to 17, and reducing the number of acres in play from 677,000 to 285,000.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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