Guiding solar to the best places: Will the BLM’s big idea cross the finish line?

El Dorado solar trough. Photo by Geri Kodey, Courtesy NREL.

What’s going on with public lands and solar energy? From reading the newspaper, you’d think it was all project-by-project decisions, but a far bigger story is brewing, one with huge implications for the future of both solar energy and our public lands. The Bureau of Land Management is planning to publish the next crucial chapter in this story in December, and whether you think of it as an early Christmas present or a 10,000 page lump of coal in your holiday stocking, you’d best pay attention – we expect the BLM’s Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Development (PEIS) will include elements both naughty and nice.

Let’s start with the nice. The PEIS is not just a decision about a single project, but rather an agency-wide program for solar, and we’re glad that the BLM is taking a big-picture look at solar on public lands.

Read more in our renewable energy blog series:

- Renewable energy on our public lands: Let's get it right
- Shaping Renewable Energy: How we can minimize the environmental impacts
- Using biology and science to guide development to the best places
- Technology will drive America’s race to a clean energy future

Even better, with the goal of guiding projects to the most appropriate places, the BLM took a critically important step last summer by identifying 24 “Solar Energy Study Areas” in the six southwest states included in the PEIS. The BLM looked for places with great solar resources, close to existing roads and transmission lines, and with limited conflicts with wildlife, wildlands, cultural resources, recreation, and other uses. The idea is simple: find the most suitable places for projects on public lands and they can be permitted and built in a way that is faster, cheaper and better for the environment, developers and consumers.

The BLM took comments on those study areas last fall, including recommendations from The Wilderness Society and many others, and has spent the last year refining them and analyzing them in detail to see what impacts solar development might have there. In the Draft PEIS, the study areas will have grown up to become “proposed Solar Energy Zones”, or SEZs. After another round of input from the public and several more months to further refine the SEZs, the BLM will finalize the boundaries in the Final PEIS.

The solar energy boundaries are just one part of the story, however.

The second, and equally important, element of the PEIS will address what the SEZs truly mean for solar development on public lands – and this is where things could get naughty.

Sure, it’s great to identify low-conflict areas for development, but how much good will it do if projects aren’t actually built there, instead of more sensitive areas? We’re concerned that the answer is “not much”, and for that reason, we’re working hard to ensure that the BLM finishes the great work it has begun.

The PEIS should designate a good set of SEZs in the right places, with the right requirements to protect wildlife and water resources, enough area to fulfill the public lands piece of the solar development pie for the next five to ten years, and the option to designate additional zones as needed and appropriate. And the PEIS should require that projects on public lands be built in these zones. This is the kind of guided development that will allow renewable energy development in a way that is truly green and clean.

We expect this to be an option in the PEIS, but not the only option. We’re guessing there will also be options that open far more lands to development than are needed, including lands that are more appropriate for protection than development.

There may also be options that make it cheaper or easier to develop in SEZs, or harder to develop outside of them. At a bare minimum, these stop-gap incentives/restrictions should be adopted, but the BLM should go further and protect the integrity of the zones by restricting development to the SEZs and any additional zones designated in the future.

We’ve got a number of irons in the fire to advance this goal, including an upcoming report that will highlight some of the best places included in the SEZs and builds support for guided development. We’ll also be snuggling up with the many volume Draft PEIS over the winter and working with partners across the west to analyze and comment. We’ll be asking our members to help bring those recommendations to the BLM, too, so keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to get engaged there.

And I know what I’m asking for Christmas this year and next – solar development on public lands that is guided to zones to limit the impact to other vital public lands. In December, we’ll get to open a draft of this present early – but we won’t know what we’ve truly gotten until the BLM completes the PEIS next year.

photo: El Dorado solar trough. Photo by Geri Kodey, Courtesy NREL.