Abengoa's Solana Concentrating Solar Power project, the first large-scale solar plant with a thermal energy storage system.
Dennis Schroeder, courtesy of NREL
After years of work, the Bureau of Land Management is poised to finish two major renewable energy efforts, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is a landmark collaboration between state and federal agencies which strikes a balance between the urgent need for renewable energy and the protection of the most-valuable desert lands.
This zoned approach guides utility-scale renewable energy projects to lands with low environmental conflict, causing the least amount of harm to wildlife habitat and natural resources. The plan is a crucial tool to help California meet its mandate to produce 50 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2030.
The goal of the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule is to facilitate responsible solar and wind energy development on public lands across the west and to charge fair market value for such development. It will promote the use of preferred areas for solar and wind energy and set up a competitive leasing system similar to the one used for oil, gas and coal.
The rule will provide guidelines to establish stability and consistency across the BLM field offices that are tasked with reviewing and approving renewable energy projects on public lands. It will also help ensure a smart renewable energy program at the BLM survives and thrives through future administrations.
Here are the top five reasons why both policies should be finalized as soon as possible:
1. One size doesn’t fit all.
The BLM currently permits wind and solar projects the same way it permits roads and telephone lines—projects with completely different scales and purposes. The leasing rule will modernize the way BLM manages renewable energy, moving to a leasing system like the one used for all other types of energy development on public lands.
The DRECP will focus development in low-conflict areas and provide incentives to developers to ensure projects are permitted more efficiently and economically.
As recently as 4 years ago, there were no solar projects on public lands. But as renewable energy is increasingly used by the U.S. to address climate change and energy security, the way it is approved must be updated. 21st-century energy deserves a 21st-century approach.
2. More conflict over poorly sited projects will slow our ability to address climate change.
Although renewable energy development on public lands has grown rapidly in recent years, projects have often unnecessarily been plagued with conflict and controversy. That’s because there has been no uniform guidance to make the process for developing these projects in a way that protects sensitive wildlands clear.
We need to move beyond a scattershot approach to be more strategic about where renewables are developed. That means identifying areas that are most appropriate for renewable energy projects ahead of time. This will help speed up development and reduce conflict.
Both the DRECP and the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule will help fix the issues that are keeping renewable energy from reaching its true potential on public lands.
3. “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”—Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
To succeed at developing sustainable renewable energy on public lands, we need to invest in plans that find the sweet spots for solar and wind to both speed development and protect wildlands and wildlife habitat.
How do we know this kind of smart approach works? Just look at the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone outside of Las Vegas. All three projects in this zone were permitted in less than half the average amount of time.
When the first project in this zone is completed, it will deliver low-conflict solar energy that is faster, cheaper and better. It will provide one of the cheapest rates for solar in the nation, while avoiding and offsetting impacts to wildlands and wildlife habitat.
The DRECP and the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule will solidify this proven approach.
4. Public lands can help us meet our climate goals—and they are only one piece of the puzzle.
One of the BLM and the state of California’s primary goals for the DRECP was to ensure it provides enough land for development to meet both state and federal renewable energy goals, prioritizing development on over 600 square miles of land. That’s a lot of space for a lot of solar and wind energy projects.
And the great thing about this land is that it’s already pre-screened for this development, so developers can expect the kind of success seen at the Dry Lake zone outside Las Vegas. The plan includes hundreds of thousands of acres that may be available if needed, allowing for growth.
Though public lands are important for addressing climate change, they are not the only solution, and private lands will also continue to play a key role for renewables across the west. In California, the second phase of DRECP that is focused on private lands and other ongoing work to facilitate development in areas like the San Joaquin valley will provide vast areas for additional growth of renewables.
The Wind and Solar Leasing Rule creates a program that is designed to continually grow and adjust, with an emphasis on designating new priority development areas in key regions as market demands evolve. In other words, as demand grows in certain parts of the country for renewables, the rule ensures that those areas will be moved to the top of the list for planning for and permitting development.
For example, in Arizona, where renewable energy is growing quickly, BLM has already designated additional priority areas for development, and the agency is working to do the same in Nevada.
5. The race doesn’t end before the finish line—even when it is a marathon.
The federal government has spent years developing a smart renewable energy program. And along the way, it has solicited comments and other input from many different stakeholders, including the wind and solar energy industry, local communities and conservation groups.
To capture the years of work that went into them and reap the benefits they offer, the BLM must finalize the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule and DRECP soon.