Wise planning will aid blueprint for national approach to solar energy

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

Just before Thanksgiving, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Deputy Secretary David Hayes each talked about "wise” and “smart” planning for development of our nation’s renewable energy resources. Their comments were about a new program for off-shore wind in the Atlantic, but they could have just as easily been talking about on-shore wind and solar development. Now the Department of the Interior, in cooperation with the Department of Energy, has released its draft plan for a solar energy program on our nation’s public lands, and we will see the first attempt to be “wise with our planning.”

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The new plan, known as the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), will be the blueprint for the federal government’s approach to solar energy development across the west. A good blueprint for a solar program on public land will help renewable energy grow and develop while minimizing costs—to the environment, rate payers, and us taxpayers, as owners of the public lands.

What we are looking for in a blueprint for a renewable energy program on public lands are:

A means to guide development to the most appropriate places. Under Secretary Salazar’s leadership, the BLM has, for the first time, begun to take hard look for places appropriate for renewable energy development. It has studied 24 areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah with great solar resources, close to existing roads and transmission lines, and with limited conflicts with wildlife, wildlands, and other uses and is beginning to look for additional appropriate areas. But identifying good areas is not enough, the blueprint must lay out how BLM will guide development into those zones.

A means to ensure that appropriate renewable energy resources get built. The failure of previous administrations to plan for a world in which clean, reliable energy powers our lives has led to speculators “staking claims” in the form of renewable energy applications on vast areas of public lands. These pre-existing claims tie up good sites or distract attention from focusing permitting in the most appropriate areas. The blueprint needs to be clear about how this back log of speculative claims scattered across the landscape will be cleared so that good projects in appropriate areas can move forward.

A means to ensure early and appropriate environmental review. Over the last year, as BLM has processed permits for solar energy projects in California, it has learned a lot about how to conduct good, scientifically and legally sufficient environmental reviews for large-scale solar projects. Those lessons need to be part of blueprint for doing it better in the future.

A means to ensure that the public’s interests—in wildlife, wildlands, and in fair return for use of our public lands—are protected. The public lands have valuable renewable energy resources that can play a part in reducing pollution and our contribution to climate change, but those lands have other important resources too. A renewable energy program on our public lands must address those other values—by guiding development away from areas with important wildlife habitat, wildness, scenic beauty, cultural resources and other important resources public lands provide and ensuring that when projects are built on public lands there is fair return for the use of the public’s land and resources and there is meaningful mitigation for unavoidable impacts.

The draft PEIS will take us one step closer to designing a solid national renewable energy siting program. These efforts could serve as a model for how smart energy production can occur on public lands by ensuring that projects tread lightly on the landscape, are permitted in a timely manner, undergo an efficient environmental review, and offer a fair return to taxpayers—all critical components of smart energy policy.