BLM’s new rule for wind and solar projects safeguards wildlands, advances climate goals

The rule will help focus wind development in the California desert into areas already degraded by other development.

Tom Brewster Photography

We are strong supporters of the new Bureau of Land Management wind and solar leasing rule that expedites renewable energy projects on less-sensitive public lands and minimizes environmental impacts from new energy infrastructure.

The BLM’s new wind and solar leasing rule, finalized on Nov. 10, will guide clean energy projects to low-conflict, pre-screened areas to increase renewable energy on public lands, helping reduce greenhouse gases and the impacts of climate change. The rule is important for renewable energy and wildlands, because it creates a streamlined process that gears development towards land with low environmental conflict.

Solar arrays will be built in areas incentivized for development that have been selected because they will have fewer impacts on wildlife and the landscape. Photo: Dennis Schroeder, courtesy of NREL

Millions of acres of federal land with intense sunlight and strong winds in the West have a high potential for renewable energy, which has made public lands in states like Nevada, California, Arizona and Wyoming highly desirable to renewable energy developers. In fact, renewable energy project approvals on public lands have increased by 900 percent since 2009, —including the first ever solar projects on public lands—with the BLM approving a handful of wind and geothermal projects in the previous decades. But the lack of uniform guidance for leasing such lands for renewable energy made it difficult avoiding harm to sensitive wildlands.

The new BLM rule creates a consistent and predictable process that benefits wildlands, clean energy development and the American people.

The process ensures: 

  • Wind and solar projects will be guided away from sensitive land and wildlife. Companies will receive benefits for developing in low-conflict, pre-screened zones, helping ensure development happens away from special wild places.
  • Permitting will be more predictable and efficient for developers. Until now, wind and solar projects were permitted under a program designed for roads and telephone lines, not clean energy, which slowed down projects on public lands—often leading to conflict and controversy.
  • The BLM will use competitive leasing to ensure taxpayers get a fair return for use of lands they own. With an established competitive leasing framework that has companies bid to develop renewable energy, the public has a better chance of getting fair market value for use of public lands.

Until now, projects were approved on a first come, first-serve basis, instead of a standard leasing process, like one that exists for oil and gas leasing on federal lands. This approach is scattershot—the developers chose some sites with inadequate regard to conservation, requiring long reviews by BLM and allowing too much room for error in picking the most suitable sites away from sensitive wildlands. This caused unnecessary suffering to wild landscapes and created difficulties for companies seeking to build projects.

Habitat for wildlife like desert tortoises will be better safeguarded with the wind and solar leasing rule. Photo: Jim Moore, TNC

The wind and solar leasing rule is a capstone of the Obama administration’s clean energy efforts on public lands, and will help ensure we meet President Obama’s Climate Action plan goal to permit 20,000 MW of renewable energy on public lands by the year 2020, which is enough energy to power 6 million homes.

Three Nevada projects show the potential of the rule

The finalization of the wind and solar leasing rule results from years of work to modernize clean energy development on public lands. Throughout the process, the BLM has taken input from renewable energy developers, environmental groups and the public to create a rule that works well for development, conservation and the American people. 

Three recent large-scale solar projects in Nevada show how well the rule’s approach of guiding development can work. By focusing development in the pre-screened, low-conflict Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, BLM was able to quickly approve the projects in less than 10 months—less than half the average.

The Dry Lake Energy Zone (Nevada) is already degraded by transmission lines, minimizing the environment impact of new development. Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

The solar zone includes around 3,000 acres of BLM land located 20 miles outside of Las Vegas that has already been impacted by development like transmission lines, mining operations and several major highways. Construction began on one of the projects this August and once completed in the next few years, these solar energy projects will generate enough clean electricity to power over 100,000 homes.

The wind and solar leasing rule provides a solid framework for developing clean energy, but also creates a program that is designed to continually grow and adjust to evolving renewable energy needs. So when demand grows in a certain part of the country—for example Arizona and Nevada—those areas will be moved to the top of the list for planning and permitting development. This helps to quickly build projects on public lands where they are needed most while preserving sensitive landscapes.

More to be done for renewables on public land

Although the wind and solar leasing rule is a critical step, there is a still a long road ahead to continue to develop renewables on public lands in a smart and thoughtful way. Building off the success of both Dry Lake and the recent finalization of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, more steps need to be taken by the Interior Department, BLM and Congress to ensure we are working towards a clean energy future while avoiding harming our wild places.

Guiding projects to low-conflict areas can help protect beautiful wildlands like Stump Springs (Nevada). Photo: Mason Cummings/TWS

What’s needed most:

  • Finding the best possible routes for electric power lines and pipelines across public lands. In the past, these transmission routes crossed too many sensitive wildlands and did not connect enough high potential renewable energy areas, but the BLM is now working to improve passageways for its “West-wide Energy Corridors” in the southwest region by identifying improved routes. These corridors provide an opportunity to connect renewable energy sources to the places that need the energy while protecting wildlands.
  • Reinvest a portion of revenue collected in conservation. Congress can help ensure renewable energy provides benefits to local communities and users of public land by directing portions of the revenue to a conservation fund and to states and counties where the project is built, as is outlined in the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, currently being considered in Congress .
  • Release comprehensive plans to balance protection of land, water and wildlife with energy and other development. The Bureau of Land Management is working on a final “Mitigation Manual and Handbook” that will set industry-wide guidelines for both avoiding and offsetting damage caused to public lands from energy and other development. These guidelines will also add predictability and efficiency for developers by making obligations to offset the impacts of development clear in advance of starting projects.