Everyone wants clean energy — But where do we put the turbines?

Wind turbines. Courtesy Iberdrola Renewables, Inc.

This feature was first published in the 2009 Wilderness Magazine. To receive the annual magazine and quarterly newsletters from The Wilderness Society, become a member today!

Mary Engel has been a staff writer for The Los Angeles Times and for newspapers in Alaska and New Mexico. Nolan Hester, her husband, is a long-time environmental reporter and former managing editor of Alaska magazine. They are writing about the West as they travel across it this year.

By Mary Engel and Nolan Hester

The nation’s growing commitment to clean energy has triggered unprecedented interest in finding sites for renewable energy development on federal land. Lured by billions of dollars in new government tax credits, grants, and loan guarantees, solar and wind power developers are scouring the nation’s desert flats and mountain passes to find the places with the greatest potential.

Today, renewables account for less than two percent of the nation’s electric power. The White House wants to boost that to 10 percent by the end of 2010, and 25 percent by 2025. Thirty-six states also want to boost their shares of energy from renewable sources, with California aiming for 33 percent. The federal grants and subsidies — part of the economic stimulus bill passed by Congress in February — are key to accelerating that transition.

Nearly a third of all U.S. energy comes from public lands and waters, with more than a third of the country’s oil, gas and coal produced from leases managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Coal accounts for the bulk of that energy. As part of the federal effort to boost public lands’ renewable energy production, the BLM and Department of Energy released preliminary “Solar Energy Study Area” maps in June for Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. All together, the 24 sites, covering 670,000 acres, could generate as much as 130,000 megawatts of electricity. (One megawatt can power 300 to 1,000 homes, depending on location and house type.)

The BLM expects to release a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for solar energy development later this year, identifying which of those areas are best suited for solar projects and offering guidance on how to reduce any impacts.

"Our goal is to minimize the impact of these projects on public land. And we believe that the Obama administration offers us a chance to wisely shape where and how those projects are constructed.”

In addition to reviewing these study areas, the BLM is processing 470 applications for specific renewable energy projects on public lands, including nearly 200 solar ones, along with many wind and geothermal applications. Many of these individual applications have been criticized by those who say they pay inadequate attention to such issues as habitat protection and water use. But many environmental groups, including The Wilderness Society, praised the broader PEIS process’s goal of protecting sensitive lands by guiding projects to appropriate places for development.

The Wilderness Society views its engagement in renewable energy issues as an integral part of its efforts to protect wildlands. “Like any energy development, these utility-scale projects are going to damage land, but we also see them as an unavoidable and necessary part of the total energy and climate picture,” explained Alex Daue of the group’s BLM Action Center in Denver. "Our goal is to minimize the impact of these projects on public land. And we believe that the Obama administration offers us a chance to wisely shape where and how those projects are constructed.”

In 2008, The Wilderness Society developed a set of principles on how to balance renewable energy development and land conservation. They call for dramatically increasing energy efficiency, reducing overall demand, and developing roof-top solar and other forms of distributed generation. The principles also support putting larger-scale renewable energy plants on already disturbed lands whenever possible and giving renewable energy projects priority over fossil-fuel-based energy on public lands.

Some environmental groups oppose any “utility-scale” renewable energy development, claiming that distributed generation, like rooftop-solar panels, could meet the demand.

Solar panels. Photo by Alex Lang, Flickr.But even the Vote Solar Initiative, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that first championed residential-scale solar in 2002, now also pushes for utility-scale facilities. “You need to do energy efficiency, you need to do as much as you can with distributed [residential] generation, but large-scale solar is a piece of that puzzle,” explained Jim Baak, the group’s policy director for utility-scale solar. “A 250-megawatt plant [the average utility-scale solar project] built in the desert would have an immediate impact.”

Homes produce about 2.5 kilowatts per rooftop under ideal circumstances, so it would take 100,000 houses to equal a single solar plant. Considering the less-than-ideal weather of San Francisco or Seattle, the appeal of larger-scale solar plants in sunnier places becomes obvious.

“The renewable energy that’s affordable now are the large-scale facilities that take advantage of good energy resources in less-populated areas,” said John H. Rogers, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. And based on their climate-change models, scientists stress that emissions must be cut now, he added. “Whether you’re looking at shorelines, or forests, or health, or winter sports, our choices make a difference, in some cases a very stark difference.”

During the Bush administration, oil and gas called the shots. The Obama-era BLM has taken a broader approach, clustering many of the preliminary solar energy study areas near existing power lines and away from ecologically sensitive lands, reflecting key recommendations voiced by environmentalists. “They're asking for our input,” said Chase Huntley, a Wilderness Society energy and climate policy advisor. “This is a dramatic change from the previous administration, where decisions were crammed down our throats. We have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes managing oil and natural gas development and create a better approach.”

Not everyone is convinced that the PEIS process will work. Bruce Pavlik, a biology professor at Mills College in Oakland and an expert on Southern California’s desert ecology, worries that the PEIS deadlines won’t allow enough time to evaluate the huge projects. “It’s another gold rush, a rush that will needlessly degrade public resources under the guise of ‘energy independence,’ ‘global warming’ and ‘change we can believe in,’” he said.

Solar site. Photo by Warren Gretz.Under a $1.1 billion Treasury Department tax-credit program, renewable energy developers who break ground by December 2010 can write off 30 percent of their costs upfront — instead of spreading the tax credits over several years under an existing energy production program.

Ray Brady, the BLM’s national energy team manager, acknowledges the grants deadline “puts the pressure on us to expedite the processing.” But the BLM must first approve each project, and he estimates that only about two dozen are likely to be approved in time. “Whether they are ‘fast–tracked’ or not, we’re still going to do site-specific evaluations,” he said.

In the future, the larger PEIS process should help the BLM get beyond handling applications one by one. Instead, Brady said, the big-picture approach should reduce the overall impact of renewable energy projects on public lands.

Daue said well-intentioned people will disagree on the right role for public lands in the broader energy solution. “Conservationists face some tough choices,” he said. “By engaging now, we hope to protect public lands while helping shape a truly sustainable energy future.”

Wind turbines. Courtesy Iberdrola Renewables, Inc.
Solar panels. Photo by Alex Lang, Flickr.
Solar site. Photo by Warren Gretz.