BLM finalizes strategy to help facilitate responsible solar energy development on Colorado public lands

BLM’s mitigation plan will offset solar development impacts by preserving or restoring places like this one in the Los Mogotes area

By Soren Jespersen 

The Colorado Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy will help projects succeed in zones and offset impacts through land and habitat restoration and preservation

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues to make progress on supporting responsible renewable energy development on our nation’s public lands. This week, the agency finalized guidelines for facilitating solar energy development in three of Colorado’s Solar Energy Zones, including recommendations for how unavoidable impacts to habitat and other resources can be “mitigated,” or offset, through investment in restoration and preservation of other lands in the region.

The new guidelines, packaged as a Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy, are the latest example of the agency’s commitment to scaling up renewable energy on our public lands, while minimizing and making up for the impacts from development.

What are Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies?

Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies are created specifically for BLM’s Solar Energy Zones. In 2012, BLM created 17 Solar Energy Zones as part of a multi-state effort to identify places that are well-suited for large-scale solar energy development because they have excellent solar resources, are close to existing roads and transmission lines, and have limited conflicts with wildlands and wildlife habitat.

BLM prioritizes and facilitates development in these zones by providing financial and permitting incentives.  Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies help by providing information that makes permitting more efficient and lets developers know up-front what their mitigation requirements are.

The three Solar Energy Zones included in the Colorado strategy, located on 12,000 acres in the San Luis Valley, are in a region believed to have some of the best solar energy resources in the country.

The Colorado strategy is the third Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy to be finalized in the last year, following strategies released in Arizona and Nevada. These strategies incorporate a “smart-from-the-start” approach to renewable energy development. That means that the federal government works with solar energy companies to prepare for large projects, including finding ways to reduce conflict with important resources and to offset any unavoidable impacts.

How do they work?

BLM’s approach includes insights—garnered from in-depth scientific and cultural studies—on how to construct projects in Solar Energy Zones with the surrounding landscape in mind. For example, in Colorado, pursuing smart solar development includes methods to limit disturbing vistas from the Old Spanish National Historic Trail and to locate infrastructure so that it causes minimal harm to the region’s migratory bird populations. Solar companies will need to follow these guidelines when building their projects.

The Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy also includes recommendations on specific sites and actions that could offset impacts, such as protective land use planning designations, land acquisition, or habitat enhancement.

Preparation of the strategy also identified new information about tribal, cultural, and environmental concerns in Colorado’s fourth Solar Energy Zone, Fourmile East, and in response, BLM is moving to consider de-designation of the zone. This appropriate reaction is consistent with the living nature of BLM’s renewable energy program, which is designed to grow as development needs evolve and adapt as new information is gathered.

In other regions in the West where development interest for solar and wind may outpace availability of land in current zones, BLM is considering designation of additional zones.

How will the Colorado Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy affect the state?

In general, the Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies should be recognized collectively as comprising a modern and inclusive approach to energy development on our public lands. And by including up-front engagement with stakeholders and preparing for smart development in Solar Energy Zones, the Colorado Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy provides new opportunities for conservation, communities, and clean energy in the state. It does this in several important ways:

  • It identifies future conservation actions and sites to offset impacts.

o   A mitigation fee, based on impacted resource values and mitigation costs, will be assessed to fund mitigation to offset unavoidable impacts from development.

o   Suitable candidate mitigation sites have been identified for future conservation actions to offset impacts, including sites that are currently unprotected or under protected.

o   Long-term land protections have been identified as one of the best options for offsetting development impacts.

  • It incorporates the input and concerns of communities and stakeholders.

o   It includes the first-ever regional assessment of cultural sites to avoid impacts to the many special places in the San Luis Valley.

o   Guidelines are included for addressing community concerns along the way as projects are designed and planned.

  • It incentivizes clean energy development.

o   The early environmental information it provides can help cut permitting time for solar projects in half.

o   By establishing a recommended mitigation fee up front, it helps developers plan costs in advance.

o   With BLM’s recently finalized Solar and Wind Leasing Rule, developers receive additional financial and permitting incentives for projects in Solar Energy Zones.

What’s next?

Through its Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies, BLM is working to balance conservation with smart renewable energy development, crucial for helping tackle the threat of climate change.

But the agency’s efforts shouldn’t stop here. BLM should finish similar Strategies in New Mexico and Utah, including incorporation of additional emphasis on opportunities to offset impacts through new protections on public lands. 

BLM should also continue to invest in the program through landscape-scale planning and pursuit of new opportunities to promote responsible renewable energy development on our nation’s public lands, delivering clean energy and economic benefits while protecting our natural heritage.