Renewable energy reforms must be finalized this year

Silurian Valley (California). 

Mason Cummings.

For centuries, coal, oil and gas has dominated energy development on public lands. The results have been significant pollution and a checkered history of leasing decisions putting development at odds with the stewardship of wildlife, wildlands and recreational opportunities.

Fortunately, wind and solar energy have emerged as viable options for sustainable energy development on public lands. Under President Obama’s tenure, solar projects have been built on public lands for the first time ever. But to ensure public lands are prepared to responsibly meet increased demand for renewable energy now and into the future, new federal guidance and policies must be implemented immediately.

Increasing demand for renewable projects on public lands

The recently passed 2016 federal spending bill includes a multi-year extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar. Senator Harry Reid (D, Nevada) hailed the extension of the tax credits as “one of the greatest investments in renewable energy in American history,” and we at The Wilderness Society couldn’t agree more.

But tax credit extensions alone are not enough to spur responsible growth of clean energy on public lands, where some of world’s best wind and solar resources exist. We also need a modern approach to leasing wind and solar energy, one that simultaneously facilitates faster permitting and guides renewable energy projects to the most appropriate places on public land. This can ensure we advance renewable energy at the size and scale we need to address climate change and protect wildlife, wildlands and recreational opportunities.

Reforms for renewables

Luckily, the Obama Administration and Congress have begun reforming how renewable energy projects are managed on public lands. We anticipate that the U.S. Department of the Interior will release new guidelines for wind and solar energy on our public lands later this year.

This the wind and solar leasing rule will improve how these energy projects are approved on public lands. It will help the U.S. move beyond the slow permitting and environmental conflicts that have plagued renewable energy development in the past, towards a smarter approach that facilitates development in appropriate areas. This rule is needed to establish a framework for a stable and long-lasting program for clean energy.

In addition, a new bill, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA), was recently introduced in Congress to promote responsible renewable energy development on Western public lands. These guidelines will help the country progress toward a more sustainable energy future that promotes clean energy development and conserves some of our nation’s most sensitive lands. And this bill has support from both Republicans and Democrats.

The Department of the Interior’s Wind and Solar Leasing Rule

The wind and solar leasing rule was proposed in the fall of 2014, but has yet to be finalized. The Wilderness Society, together with other clean energy advocates, is calling on the Administration to finalize this rule as soon as possible. Specifically, this rule will do the following:

  • Modernize the permitting system by putting in place a competitive leasing system, as is the practice for other types of domestic energy development.
  • Balance the growing demand for clean energy development with the need to minimize conservation conflicts by incentivizing development in “Smart from the Start” places called designated leasing areas, like solar energy zones.
  • Provide predictability for energy companies by putting in place standard operating procedures for developing renewable energy.
  • Fight climate change by putting renewable energy on a level playing field with fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) that are developed on public lands.

The Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act

The Act, as currently written, will support identification of high-value public lands for renewable energy development and redirect revenue to improving permitting, conservation and local governments.

Introduced in May 2015 by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Jared Polis (D-CO) in the House and Dean Heller (R-NV) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) in the Senate, it makes a commitment to improving and expanding renewable energy projects on public lands.

Specifically this bill would:

  • Balance the impacts of wind and solar energy projects on public lands by ensuring a portion of revenue generated is reinvested in conservation efforts in local communities.
  • Improve the permitting process by directing funds to the Bureau of Land Management to help reduce the backlog of project applications and focus development in areas where projects are most likely to succeed.
  • Protect wildlands and wildlife habitat by focusing development away from sensitive areas.

Time to ensure a sustainable energy future

With the final release of its wind and solar rule, the Administration can ensure developing clean, renewable energy on public lands becomes the new way of doing business. And with the passage of the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act, Congress will help improve how renewable energy projects are developed on public lands, creating jobs and protecting the environment.

These new policies will contribute to a stable energy economy, lower the prices we pay to power our homes and businesses, help address climate change and improve public health.