At the BLM, a mixed record for renewables on public lands

Will the Paris talks help break bureaucratic deadlocks?


When Bill Miller first met with officials from the Bureau of Land Management to talk about his company’s vision of building a 1,000-turbine wind farm on a checkerboard expanse of public and private land in Wyoming, President George W. Bush was still in the White House. When agency officials warned him it could take five years for such a gigantic project to wade through environmental reviews, he told them: “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard.”

So it was music to Miller’s ears when President Barack Obama’s first Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, in 2009 announced as a top objective turning Western federal lands into hotbeds of renewable energy to deliver on two of the new president’s pledges—creating jobs and transitioning to a clean energy.

Miller’s Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm was named a priority project. The BLM also fast-tracked a transmission line project to carry the electricity—enough to power approximately 1 million homes. And yet, all these years later, the wind and transmission projects still have not made it through BLM’s bureaucratic gauntlet. “To put it bluntly, they kind of lost momentum,” says Miller.

The Wyoming ranch still waiting to become the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind farm.
Power Company of Wyoming.

As Obama and other world leaders meet in Paris in search of deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, clean energy is front and center. But seven years into his presidency, Obama’s record on renewable energy projects on public lands is mixed. There is no question that his administration has done far more than any other to make the BLM a welcoming landlord for solar, wind and geothermal electricity, but there is also a lot of room for improvement. There still is great potential for reshaping public land use policy in the West to take much greater advantage of abundant clean energy resources such as wind and solar.

“We have come light years,” says Michael Nedd, BLM’s assistant director of Energy, Minerals, and Realty Management, who oversees the agency’s renewable program.

In 2009, the BLM had no staff, funding or rules dedicated to renewable energy projects. The agency now counts 57 projects that it has approved since then. The list includes some projects that have been canceled and others where the BLM plays only a bit part.

So far, only four solar arrays, five geothermal projects and three wind farms on BLM land actually deliver electricity to the grid in Western states. Still, Nedd says the agency is well on the way to meeting the president’s goal of permitting enough renewable projects to provide electricity to 6 million homes by 2020. That will also mean setting up the infrastructure needed to keep permitting renewable power long into what Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calls “the renewable energy future.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and BLM Director Neil Kornze at huge solar array on BLM land in California.
Interior Department/CC Flickr
Unquestionably, the BLM has made progress in teeing up the public lands for renewable energy projects, especially solar. It designated 19 solar energy zones in six southwestern states, where the BLM will prioritize projects and transmission lines to bring their electricity to the grid.

The zones were selected for having great sunlight, good access to power lines and few conflicts with other priorities—such as recreation, hunting or endangered species. So far, the BLM has two held auctions. The first one, in Colorado two years ago, flopped. No bids were received. But the second one, a year later in Nevada, was a big success, and the agency made good on its promise to fast track permitting three projects in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone near Las Vegas within ten months of the auction.

The Dry Lake projects are the first to undergo BLM’s new system for permitting renewable projects, which the agency hopes to codify in new regulations early next year. In BLM’s view, its competitive leasing rule will speed permitting and avoid litigation, because developers will vie for parcels of land already vetted by the agency. “Dry Lake showcases what we hope the future will hold for renewable development on public lands,” Lucas Lucero, the acting head of the BLM renewable program, says.

Yet some in the solar industry are highly critical of the agency’s new approach. “These changes will add time, uncertainty, complexity, and expense to a permitting process that is already substantially more difficult to pursue than permitting on private lands,” Andrew Bell, a lawyer for the Solar Energy Industries Association, wrote in a comment on the proposed rule. That will make it harder for solar plants to compete against other sources of electricity, an “unintended consequence” that conflicts with the president’s Climate Action Plan, Bell says.

While solar companies feud with the BLM over the path forward, most wind developers are taking their business elsewhere. BLM lands are home to some of the best wind resources in the country. But they often lack access to adequate transmission lines, and there are plenty of windy locations on private property. So, only about 1 percent of the installed wind capacity in the U.S. is on federal land.

The BLM has been much slower to set up a new system for permitting wind projects than it has for solar. For example, it has not identified wind zones, where projects can be expedited, though Nedd says his agency is working to do that in Wyoming, Oregon and Idaho.

Several factors could play a role in luring developers to public lands in the future. Obama’s Clean Power Plan gives states flexibility to decide how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will increase the portion of U.S. power created by zero-emission renewables, including hydro-power, wind, and solar, from 12 percent in 2012 to 21 percent in 2030. And California recently adopted a new law requiring that 50 percent of its electricity come from renewables by 2030. The BLM and the state of California are hoping to soon complete the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which maps out areas of the state where development should be avoided and spells out rules for potential projects.

Big companies can play a role in increasing demand too. Just this week, one of the developers with a winning bid in the Dry Lake auction, First Solar Inc., announced a second long-term agreement to purchase the power from its Switch Station project, named for the big data center provider that’s buying the electricity. 

As for the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, its original schedule envisioned all 1,000 turbines churning away by now. These days the company hopes to reach that goal by 2023.  Miller says his experience shows that the BLM’s efforts to set up an expedited permitting process for wind projects have failed, despite all the efforts.

Miller thinks the competitive leasing rule “could further discourage development on federal lands and drive people further to private lands.” Still, Miller believes there will be eager customers for his multi-billion project once it’s finally built. “We picked this spot because… there is no better wind asset in this country,” says Miller, president of two subsidiaries of Anschutz Corp., Power Company of Wyoming for the wind farm and TransWest Express for the transmission project.

What role could the Paris climate conference have in giving public lands a bigger role in realizing a clean energy future? Paris may be one of those seminal moments where we decide to make climate change a priority. “Then the focus turns to: What’s stopping us from doing it?” says Robert Godby, University of Wyoming professor of energy economics. “Maybe that will create the impetus to streamline.” 

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. 

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