The Vast Potential For Renewable Energy In The American West

This is just the beginning, and many more installations could be responsibly sited and built in these states over the next 20 years, bringing economic development and job creation to the West. Additional policies are essential to turn these opportunities into reality.

To capture the full economic, energy, and public health benefits from this opportunity, the federal government should adopt four essential policies:

  • A national clean energy standard of 80 percent by 2035, with 35 percent for renewables
  • A clean resources standard for public lands and waters
  • Renewable energy zones
  • Comprehensive electricity transmission reforms to rehabilitate our aging system

Our report identifies the vast opportunities for renewable energy installations on public lands in the West, but this does not imply that we endorse their deployment on every acre. Some places are not appropriate for energy development, and instead should be managed for multiple uses including hunting, fishing, recreation, wildlife, and other such essential values.

How much clean energy, jobs, and investment could western public lands generate?

We assessed the federal government’s “reasonably foreseeable development scenarios” for the likelihood of renewable energy development on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. These analyses examine the economic and policy conditions in the six states to determine how much renewable energy on public lands could realistically be generated over 20 years. These results are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2

As seen in the chart above, public lands in these six states could reasonably be the location for the development of 34,399 megawatts (or 34.4 gigawatts) of wind, solar, and geothermal energy over the next 20 years. This is enough electricity to power more than 7 million homes, or about equivalent to the number of homes in the Four Corners states.

It is important to note that these figures are what the Department of the Interior considers to be realistic development, which is different than renewable energy potential on public lands in the West which is much greater. Our goal is to encourage the achievement of this outlook and to go beyond it.

It is difficult to determine how many acres this development might entail for the six states that we studied due to lack of data for geothermal energy. But the same reasonably foreseeable development scenarios that we relied on for megawatt estimates found that on public lands in all of the western states surveyed, together about 214,000 acres of solar and 160,100 acres of wind could likely be developed over two decades. While the government’s analysis is less clear on the number of acres that could be disturbed for geothermal development, it estimates that about 133 additional geothermal power plants could be built by 2025, which would cover an average of up to 367 acres each. So we can guess that approximately 48,811 acres at most could be used for geothermal energy.

The development of renewable energy on public lands in the six states that we examined could create hundreds of thousands of direct jobs through project construction, installation, and operation and maintenance. According to the Electric Power Research Institute, each megawatt of wind energy creates about 2.9 direct jobs, solar creates about 6.6 direct jobs, and geothermal creates about 5.7 direct jobs.

The Center for American Progress is an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. Building on the achievements of progressive pioneers such as Teddy Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, our work addresses 21st-century challenges such as energy, national security, economic growth and opportunity, immigration, education, and health care. We develop new policy ideas, critique the policy that stems from conservative values, challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter, and shape the national debate.

1 Comment

  • Reply August 9, 2012

    paul radcliff

    Our future may be looking up. If enough of these types of projects are successful, private lands and private enterprise could utilize, from the developed technology, even cheaper to manufacture in vast quantities. More jobs, still. “How is this a bad plan?”

    Quote from ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ movie with James Cavesiel

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