The Vast Potential For Renewable Energy In The American West

Public lands clean resources standard

The president also should use executive authority to establish a “clean resources standard” for energy resources from eligible public lands. This would require that 35 percent of the electricity generated from resources mined, drilled, or otherwise extracted from public lands and waters be renewable by 2035. Similar to President Obama’s proposed clean energy standard designed to increase the amount of renewable electricity that utilities sell, this policy is designed to boost development of renewable electricity from public lands.

Currently, 66 percent of electricity generated from resources from public lands and waters is from coal, while only 1 percent is from solar, wind, and geothermal combined. This shows that the use of our public lands for electricity generation heavily favors coal, and it neglects the contribution that our public lands could make toward development of low- and no-carbon electricity.

defense department, interior department, renewables agreement

Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. (image via Borrego Solar)

New energy zones

Siting large-scale renewable energy development on public lands across the country must take into account other values including hunting, fishing recreation, clean water, clean air, wildlife habitat, and scenery in accordance with the Bureau of Land Management’s multiple use mandate. One way to ensure that renewable energy development on public lands respects these values is for the Department of the Interior to build upon its program to establish incentivized zones for solar development on public lands. This program allows for incentives such as streamlined permitting, lower fees, and prioritized transmission capacity to be put in place for solar projects that are sited in designated zones. The zones will also have been screened for wildlife and other environmental conflicts to ensure that they will be minimal.

On July 24, 2012, the Department of the Interior released the final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States. It designates 17 solar zones covering approximately 285,000 acres, and also opens up an additional 19 million acres to the possibility of solar energy development. A final decision approving the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement will be made by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in the next few months.

In addition to fine-tuning and finalizing the solar energy zones, this policy should also be extended to wind projects to ensure that they too will have more certainty and fewer legal challenges when it comes to siting on public lands.

Electric transmission policy reforms

A major challenge to the deployment of large-scale renewable energy on public lands is the lack of adequate electrical transmission capacity to transmit this clean electricity to communities that need it. This process should be reformed, which could be accomplished in a variety of ways. As CAP previously wrote in 2010:

Transmission reform is urgent. … [we need to] create a system for effectively siting new transmission. Such a system will likely combine [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] oversight with a clearly defined role for state regulators, balancing the need for regional and national planning with respect for state and local conditions.

This policy would lead to the construction or improvement of transmission lines by clarifying and streamlining the siting and permitting process. Additionally, federal authority to plan, site, and allocate costs for the construction of new transmission lines should be strengthened in the case that states do not work together to upgrade transmission capacity. The implementation of the Federal Regulatory Commission’s Order Number 1000 should be supported to help achieve these goals.


Public lands in the American West can help lead the nation’s transition to a cleaner, cheaper electricity system. Our analysis shows that under reasonably foreseeable federal government development scenarios for renewable energy development, more than 34 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy could be built on public lands in the Four Corners states plus California and Nevada over the next 20 years. This would provide economic opportunities—more than 209,000 direct jobs and $137 billion in investment in the renewable energy sector. With supportive policies there is great potential to build additional wind, solar, and geothermal electricity projects on public lands in the West.

This region has the opportunity to become a leader in the development of homegrown American energy not subject to volatile fossil-fuel prices, creating jobs that cannot be outsourced and developing technologies for export to other countries. But in order to realize this likelihood and also help the region achieve its even greater potential for renewable energy, a number of additional policies should be put in place. These include a national clean energy standard, a clean resources standard for public lands and waters, energy zones, and electric transmission policy reforms to update our aging system.

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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