Interior Department releases plan for prioritizing applications pending final solar energy plan

Sandia Laboratory Tour 

Alex Daue

Early last week, the Bureau of Land Management released a list of 17 wind, solar, and geothermal project applications that the agency will prioritize in 2012, representing about 7,000 MW of renewable energy. According to the BLM, the projects were selected based on a variety of considerations, including progress of the necessary public participation and environmental analysis under federal and applicable state environmental laws. That means that these projects will benefit from focused effort across the agency while a long-term solar energy plan is finalized.

The BLM is working hard to increase transparency and create certainty in the permitting process. With limited resources, focusing on a manageable number of applications is necessary—and better still, focusing on project proposals most likely to be built can build momentum for a growing renewable energy industry. While the priority list does include problematic applications, the agency has made progress toward developing a smarter permitting process for clean energy development on our public lands.

In the past, wind and solar planning have languished while the BLM engaged in a single-minded pursuit of oil and gas. But positive changes are underfoot. Market conditions have improved for renewable energy as prices have dropped and technology has continued to improve. The Department of the Interior under Secretary Ken Salazar has also shown leadership on making environmentally responsible development of renewable energy on public lands a top priority. The first Secretarial Order under Salazar, signed on March 11, 2009, formally established responsible development of renewable energy as a primary focus for the agency. The Order calls for prioritizing specific locations for development of wind, solar, and geothermal resources, and in particular calls for new or revised policies needed to increase development and transmission of renewable energy resources from public lands.

For the long-term success of renewable energy and to protect public lands, DOI must maintain its focus on moving away from a project-by-project approach to a comprehensive program that guides projects to low-conflict areas—such as the plan contemplated for solar development in the programmatic EIS currently under development for six western states. Until a program framework is put into place, the Department will continue to face the difficulties associated with project-by-project permitting for solar facilities. Experience to date has shown that better planning and upfront analysis can reduce uncertainty for developers and financiers, and delays to projects.

Despite what some media outlets have reported, renewable energy is working in America. Developing a robust domestic renewable energy industry will be essential for our national and economic security. Across the country, from rooftops to former industrial sites, renewable energy facilities are under construction and in operation today. The BLM’s effort at screening for projects with minimal environmental impacts is an important recognition that renewable energy development and land conservation can go hand in hand. But we will only realize that goal with a predictable approach that starts with identifying the right places to develop – that is being truly smart from the start.