NewsMay 26, 2011

Public Lands Ripe for Renewable Energy Development, Report Says

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By Dave Levitan

On 3,500 acres of public land in San Bernardino County, California, there will soon sit 392 megawatts worth of solar thermal electricity generation, enough to power 140,000 homes. This will present an example of compromise between the often conflicting goals of protecting the country’s vast federal lands and developing the massive energy potential they hold. And with a surge of energy projects being proposed for public lands across the country, this compromise could signal a promising path ahead.

Brightsource Energy’s Solar Energy Development Center in the Mojave Desert. Credit: Brightsource.

The Ivanpah solar project, currently under construction by Brightsource Energy, occupies land in the Mojave Desert that is prime habitat for the threatened desert tortoise and other species. The Center for Biological Diversity, a non-profit group that encourages renewable energy development but often opposes specific projects because of potential environmental harm, wants to save that tortoise. This is the type of conflict that would ordinarily sink a large energy project, but the two sides agreed last October that Brightsource would acquire or “enhance” thousands of acres of the Mojave to benefit the tortoise, at least modestly offsetting any damage to the habitat done by the solar project.

Though recent developments have put two of the project’s three parts on hold — there are, apparently, more tortoises at the construction site than the company thought — Brightsource still says it will be finished in 2013.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) — the parent agencies for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service, respectively — manage 700 million acres of land, with another 1.7 billion acres of offshore continental shelf managed by the Interior Department alone. And just as they have been for more than a century, these public lands are prime real estate when it comes to energy development, from coal mining to wind farms.

On May 6, the DOI and USDA released the New Energy Frontier Report, a comprehensive look at progress on both renewable and conventional energy development on the country’s vast public lands. The report demonstrates how coal mining and oil and gas drilling continue to march inexorably forward, but also highlights impressive progress on renewable energy projects that marks a clear paradigm shift in government promotion of such technologies.

Developing renewable energy facilities on public lands is an attractive option for several reasons: first, the massive holdings managed by the government hold some of the best solar and wind resources the country has to offer; and second, it could eliminate some of the “not in my backyard”, or NIMBY, issues that crop up so commonly with private and less remote land development.

Chase Huntley, a policy advisor on energy and climate change for The Wilderness Society, a non-profit environmental group, said the Obama administration has shown a commitment to permitting new renewable energy projects, “but they inherited a bureaucracy that was not built to do that. They are very focused on permitting projects that have labored under a de facto moratorium under the previous administration. They were designing this plane as it was cruising down the runway for takeoff.”

As Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said in a May 13 House Natural Resources Committee hearing on renewable energy on public lands: “During the eight years of the Bush/Cheney clean energy moratorium, the Interior Department issued more than 40,000 permits to drill for oil and gas on public lands. But of the more than 300 applications to build solar facilities that came in during that time… exactly zero applications were approved.”

In contrast, last year alone the BLM approved nine solar projects on public land that would add 3,682 megawatts of electric generating capacity.

And in the wake of the Obama administration’s new approvals for such facilities, another 100 large-scale solar applications are waiting in the wings as well. The DOI also has identified 24 “solar energy study areas” in six states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — encompassing more than 1,000 square miles that could eventually be deemed suitable sites for solar energy development.

Huntley stressed that this type of planning process — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has called such ideas “smart from the start” energy development — is crucial to lay the groundwork for an industry that until very recently barely existed at all.

“The aggregate numbers don’t tell the story of the type of deep, deep paradigm shift that we’re seeing,” Huntley said. Though solar energy still accounts for only about one percent of U.S. electricity generating capacity, by developing the study areas and focusing on smarter ways to use the available public lands, all those permitted projects have a strong chance of actually being built.

“This administration is taking action, not just tap dancing on process,” Huntley said. As the New Energy Frontier report points out, though, there are still no active solar installations on any BLM land; there are, however, 25 wind power facilities on BLM land, totaling 437 megawatts of capacity.

The proposed transmission line route would be approximately 460 miles in length. The proposed route and alternatives would cross approximately 45 miles of BLM lands in Arizona and 170 miles in New Mexico, along with state and private lands. Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior.

And there are, of course, hiccups moving through this sort of process. As University of Arizona professor Ed de Steiguer said, “Every time you get into large-scale land disturbances, the public is going to push back.” De Steiguer worked with the Forest Service for 20 years before coming to the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at Arizona; he said that using public land for renewable energy projects is so different from more traditional uses — from recreation to livestock grazing — that there are bound to be some conflicts. The Ivanpah solar project provides a clear example of such conflicts, and signals that agreements can, in fact, be reached.

De Steiguer's contention that renewable projects are creating relatively new public lands issues seems borne out by another example in the Southwest, concerning a project known as the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project. The SunZia Project would involve the construction of two 500 kilovolt transmission lines across about 460 miles of New Mexico and Arizona in order to bring electricity — primarily from renewable generation sources — to highly populated areas. Such transmission projects are a key requirement for wind and solar power projects that often are sited in remote locales. In this case, 215 miles of the transmission lines would cross through BLM and Forest Service lands.

“There already is resistance to this,” said de Steiguer, adding that it is primarily coming from environmental groups as well as some concerns expressed by Arizona Democratic Representative Raúl Grijalva. Another Democratic politician, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, has raised similar challenges to expansive solar power development in the Mojave and other parts of her home state. A bill she introduced in January, the California Desert Protection Act of 2011, now awaits action from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; it would close off more than one million acres of land to energy development.

According to both Feinstein's staff and Brightsource, the bill would not, however, prevent Ivanpah from moving forward.

Clearly, balancing the need for clean energy with traditional public lands protections won’t come easily. The New Energy Frontier report itself directly addresses the changing needs of public land management:

“With the growing importance of energy development from the Federal lands, with advancing technology, and with the emerging role of renewable energy in the Nation's energy policy, the laws, regulations, and policies that conserve the resources and values of the public lands continue to evolve,” the report states.

Those policies must incorporate astonishingly complex aspects of land use planning, environmental review, water resource management, and many other thorny issues, making it all the more impressive that any new wind and solar projects may be built at all.

Interestingly, because extraction of conventional energy sources including coal, gas and oil has been occurring on public lands for a century and the permitting processes are so well established, proposals for such projects may face easier journeys through the bureaucracy compared to renewable energy endeavors. In the DOI/USDA report, the agencies make clear that although renewable energy is a priority, conventional resources on public lands are still so extensive that mining and drilling will continue on a large scale for the foreseeable future.

There are currently 38.2 million acres of onshore public land already under lease for oil and gas development (16.6 million of these are active), and another 33 BLM lease sales are expected in 2011 that will cover 3.2 million acres. And after President Obama’s weekly address on May 14, those numbers could grow: the President called for the DOI to hold annual lease sales in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, as well as expanded areas of the Gulf of Mexico. It is not all business-as-usual, though: the report highlights the reorganization of the former Minerals Management Service into the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement following the massive Gulf oil spill, and the need for better environmental oversight of both on- and offshore oil and gas drilling. The President’s address also included the caveat that “sensitive areas” still do require protection, in spite of the calls for expanded drilling.

Ivanpah and SunZia demonstrate some of the problems — some surmountable, others most likely not — that arise as the country tries to build a clean energy economy. And the momentum that the DOI has created seems like it might have legs: those 100 other solar applications the BLM received in 2010 would account for an astonishing 61,000 megawatts of power. To put that into context, at the end of last year the country had an installed capacity of just 2,600 megawatts of solar power, all on private lands.

“This isn’t a battleship, maybe not even an aircraft carrier, this is an island that’s being turned around,” said the Wilderness Society’s Huntley. “It is moving, but it is difficult to move an agency of this size… I am optimistic that the DOI has taken steps in the right direction.”