Renewable energy on our public lands: Let's get it right

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

It’s great that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has been focusing a lot of attention on solar and wind development on public lands, even to the point that the DOI’s web site is sporting images of wind turbines and solar panels. This attention to renewable energy is very welcome to those of us who work closely with government agencies to protect wild places from the impacts of drilling and climate change, but there are a couple critical pieces of the renewable energy puzzle that we need to make sure the Interior Department and its Bureau of Land Management focus on.

Those pieces include prioritizing WHERE we develop utility scale renewables in addition to how MUCH we develop so that wildlands are not unnecessarily damaged in the process.

Read more in our renewable energy blog series:

- Shaping Renewable Energy: How we can minimize the environmental impacts
- Guiding solar to the best places
- Using biology and science to guide development
- Technology will drive America’s race to a clean energy future

In a letter to the New York Times, Wilderness Society President William H. Meadows points out that we are in the midst of a dramatic transformation of how the nation’s energy resources on public lands are developed. The transformation he mentions is an exciting one. But it also includes serious challenges, such as revamping a permitting system built around the grossly prioritized oil and gas permitting of the past. The legacy of this lopsided system is that the government has been ill-equipped to manage the tidal wave of renewable energy applications that has come rushing forward in last few years.

Efforts to restore balance at DOI have already resulted in key wind and solar projects moving forward in time for stimulus financing — an important first step. But to take meaningful steps toward a sustainable energy future, we must do more, and we must also do better at identifying suitable places for development.

A critical improvement will be moving from a scattershot approach of permitting on a project-by-project basis to clear and consistent policies that guide companies to the right places, with early public engagement and consistent environmental review.

The Interior Department is about to release a draft plan for solar energy that will outline suitable areas for development and, we hope, lay out a plan for managing permit applications. One key component of the plan is a set of 24 “Solar Energy Study Areas” identified in six southwestern states. The Wilderness Society’s priorities for this plan are that the study areas be sited in the right places and that there are meaningful incentives for companies to build their projects within them, rather than in other, more sensitive areas. We’ll be talking about these study areas in an upcoming blog post.

Renewable development issues extend beyond physical development areas though. The system by which The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages wind and solar projects simply doesn’t fit. The agency is stuck with an antiquated permitting system better suited for building irrigation ditches than cutting-edge solar farms.

Recently the BLM put out new guidance for solar development that improves this system, including making sure taxpayers are not left with the check for cleanup if projects fail. But, as Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said last week, the agency doesn’t even have the authority to collect the same fees for public land rental rates that a private landowner would. What’s more, they are not allowed to direct monies to important priorities such as improving the permitting process, like they can for oil and gas monies, or reinvest the monies in important conservation programs to offset development impacts—despite the strong public support for doing so.

In fact, 85 percent of Americans say companies that develop renewable energy facilities on public lands should pay a portion of their profits for land conservation, according to polling conducted by Lake Research Partners, a leading public opinion research firm.

The changes afoot at Interior signal an important recognition that the public lands can play an important role in a cleaner energy future. But in order to ensure renewable energy treads lightly on the landscape, we need clear rules of the road to make sure this is done right from the start. For us, that means ensuring the Department delivers on its mission by starting projects in the most suitable areas, processing the most viable applications, building only what is needed, and reinvesting in conservation to offset the impacts. Done right, wind and solar development can be smarter, cheaper, and better for companies, conservationists and consumers.

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