New rule will set up a smart renewable energy program on public lands

Solar panels.

Photo credit: David Goehring, flickr

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to release its Wind and Solar Leasing Rule in the next few weeks. The rule will facilitate responsible solar and wind energy development on public lands and charge a fair market value for such development.

The rule has many supporters from many different walks of life, including both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, land managers, conservation organizations, sportsmen, local elected officials and former public utility commissioners.

That’s because it simply makes sense. 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, coal and offshore wind. It will establish stability and consistency in BLM offices across the country. And it will help ensure a smart renewable energy program at the BLM survives and thrives through future administrations.

The rule is smart, thorough and comprehensive. It will be released after several years of development, public input and review.

Here’s why it matters so much for BLM to finalize the wind and solar leasing rule:

  • The rule will make responsible renewable energy development easier.

    Prioritizing development in designated low-conflict areas, as the rule does, will speed up permitting. We know this because it has been done recently in Nevada. The BLM auctioned off parcels of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone and was able to permit projects in half the time it had taken previously.

    In addition, solar energy produced by one of these projects will be sold at 3.8 cents/kWh, one of the cheapest rates in the nation. The BLM, industry and conservationists have all hailed the success of the Dry Lake projects, and the rule will ensure that the collaborative work that led to the Dry Lake success will continue.

    By identifying areas that are best suited to renewable energy development, the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule incentivizes and fast-tracks development in priority development areas—making the process faster and cheaper.

    Federal approvals of renewable energy projects on public lands have increased by 900 percent since 2009. The Wind and Solar Leasing Rule will only help continue this trend, as will two other federal policies nearing completion, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California and the bipartisan Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, a bill currently being considered in Congress. Together, these three efforts will advance renewable energy in a way that benefits everyone, including industry.

  • The rule will help modernize the U.S. energy industry.

    It will implement competitive leasing, putting renewable energy on the same playing field as fossil fuels by simplifying and speeding up a costly and slow process. Currently, the BLM is using a project-by-project permitting system that is better suited for roads and telephone lines, not the unique characteristics of modern-day energy development.

    A competitive leasing process will also help taxpayers. Public lands are owned by all Americans, and they must be managed for multiple uses. That means that companies should pay for the cost of removing those lands from other uses. By law, the BLM is required to get fair-market value for the use of public lands for energy development, and this rule was designed to ensure that.

  • There is plenty of space for 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 is working to do the same in Nevada.

    It is worth reiterating here that the federal government is required to manage lands for multiple uses. That means that no type of energy development—even if it’s renewable energy—should automatically be the number-one priority use of all lands.

    It makes sense to set aside lands with different qualities for different purposes, including conservation, recreation, and energy development. Some lands are simply too wild to develop, and should be protected.

  • The rule will help the U.S. meet climate goals.

    We know that climate change is real, and it is already happening. And with at least one-fifth of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions coming from public lands, we also know that public lands must play a role in addressing this issue.

    That means, in part, that renewable energy on public lands must continue to grow. But not all places are appropriate for development. John Podesta said it best: “Renewable energy projects can still disrupt the natural environment if put in the wrong places and if proper precautions are not taken—an outcome fundamentally at odds with the reasons we’re developing clean energy in the first place.”

    Fortunately, the federal government continues to identify new areas that are appropriate for wind and solar energy development. By continuing to work with industry and other stakeholders, including conservationists on developing new renewable energy projects on public lands, the Department of Interior will continue to contribute to meeting the climate goals set at the UN Paris conference in 2015.

A number of efforts have advanced wind and solar energy on public lands during President Obama’s time in office, while also protecting valued land and water for future generations. But there is no guarantee these reforms will survive over the long-term without the Wind and Solar Leasing Rule, so it must be finalized as soon as possible.


Originally published Aug. 5. Title changed Sept. 2.