Bureau of Land Management helps set solar energy up for success in three key states

A solar energy array in the West.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

New guidance from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is setting up three Western states to help transition our nation’s energy economy to renewable sources.

BLM’s guidelines (called “Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies”) are aimed at increasing the efficiency of permitting utility-scale solar projects on public lands in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado and also improving the way developers offset the impacts from their projects. The efforts are part of BLM’s work to modernize the way it plans for energy development, using a “smart from the start” approach.

In 2012, BLM designated 17 Solar Energy Zones on public lands in the six southwestern states. This was a great start for solar energy on public lands—it used broad brushstrokes to find low-conflict places that have great solar resources and avoid important wildlands and wildlife habitat.

When BLM designated the zones, it also committed to further refining them by creating a Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy for each zone. These strategies apply a deeper level of analysis and public engagement to each Solar Energy Zone, and result in recommendations on which portions of the zones should be developed, how much developers should be charged to “mitigate” or offset the impacts of their projects to the land and where those funds should be spent to protect or restore other lands in the region.

The final Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies published for Arizona and Nevada, and the draft strategy in Colorado, underscore the BLM’s commitment to getting solar energy development right on public lands. The strategies work to incorporate the best available science to better ensure projects are avoiding and minimizing impacts on the landscape to the maximum extent possible and that actions will be taken to offset any unavoidable impacts in the respective regions.

These efforts can establish protections for other important lands or improve wildlife habitat through restoration projects like fence removal or road rehabilitation. They also let solar developers know up front what their mitigation costs and obligations will be, adding important predictability to the process.

BLM’s new strategies should help improve outcomes for both solar development and conservation. This is demonstrated by a pilot project in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, outside of Las Vegas. Last year, BLM permitted three solar projects in the Dry Lake zone in less than half the average time for projects outside of zones.

When construction begins on the Dry Lake solar projects this year, mitigation funds will be invested in habitat improvement in key areas in southern Nevada. With the recent release of the strategies for Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, BLM is closer to replicating this success elsewhere in the West.

Though these strategies are another important step towards the clean energy future we need, there is still one piece missing for a truly smart program that can deliver long-term success: BLM’s Wind and Solar Leasing Rule. This rule was proposed in draft form in 2014, but publication of the final rule continues to be delayed.

The rule would ensure that the opportunities with Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies and the success of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone becomes standard practice for wind and solar development on public lands—providing efficiency and predictability for developers, using cost incentives to prioritize responsible development in low-conflict Solar Energy Zones and leveling the playing field with fossil fuel development on public lands.

It is crucial that BLM finalize the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule in the coming months to ensure the solid foundation it has created for renewable energy on public lands is carried forward, allowing us to meet our clean energy goals while protecting our nation’s precious wildlands and wildlife habitat.