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BLM plan aims to dramatically expand Western solar

By Scott Streater | 01/17/2024 04:28 PM EST

The Bureau of Land Management proposes to add 5.4 million acres in five states that would be eligible for streamlined permitting of utility-scale solar projects.

The 100-megawatt MGM Resorts Mega Solar Array.

The 100-megawatt MGM Resorts' Mega Solar Array launched on June 28, 2021, in Dry Lake Valley, Nevada. Ethan Miller/AFP via Getty Images

The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday took a major step toward boosting the rollout of utility-scale solar power on federal lands across the West.

BLM released a proposed update to its Western Solar Plan, adopted during the Obama administration in 2012, that would add 5.4 million acres in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington state and Wyoming to the list of federal lands that the bureau has evaluated and deemed suitable for commercial-scale solar development applications.

Projects proposed within these priority areas — all of which would be within 10 miles of existing or planned transmission lines that have a capacity to carry at least 100 kilovolts of electricity — would be subject to a streamlined permitting process because the bureau has determined they have high solar power potential and minimal conflicts with wildlife and plants.

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What’s more, the “preferred alternative” in the that analyzes the updated plan would remove 19 million acres of so-called variance areas in the 2012 plans, where the bureau had determined solar projects could be permitted with additional study or mitigation measures, and group them in the areas open for project applications.

In total, the updated plan identifies a total of 22 million acres that would be open for project applications. This would not only be in the five additional states, but also in the six states in the 2012 plan: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Doing so will require amending resource management plans in all 11 states to identify the areas available for commercial-scale solar power project applications, as well as setting aside about 126 million acres of “exclusion” areas that won’t be eligible for streamlined permitting, according to the preferred alternative.

The plan, portions of which were developed in coordination with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Argonne National Laboratory, estimates that solar development is likely on about 700,000 acres of BLM land in the planning area over the next 20 years, and that these projects would produce up to 100,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to power tens of millions of homes.

Projects proposed within the priority solar application areas identified in the updated plan are not guaranteed approval.

Rather, the plan is designed to provide BLM with a land-use planning “framework” of where large-scale projects should be sited.

“By updating this plan we will facilitate faster and easier responsible permitting in priority areas, and improve consistency in processing rights of way for utility-scale solar projects,” Laura Daniel-Davis, the Interior Department’s acting deputy secretary, said during a call with reporters Wednesday. “Simply put, the updated Western Solar Plan will create the foundation for solar development and conservation on public lands into the future.”

Daniel-Davis and BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning also announced during the call that several proposed large-scale solar energy projects had reached regulatory permitting milestones.

For example, BLM has completed a draft EIS for the 700-MW Libra Solar Project in western Nevada, and a separate draft EIS for the 400-MW Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project in Nevada’s Pahrump Valley west of Las Vegas, along with several other projects in the permitting pipeline that would have a total capacity to produce about 1,700 MW of electricity.

“When all is said and done, all of the energy projects that we are announcing today will deliver enough clean energy to power more than a half-a-million homes,” Stone-Manning said.

BLM has made updating the Western Solar Plan a priority, with the overall goal to guide the industry to develop commercial-scale projects away from lands with sensitive natural, historical or cultural resources by providing a streamlined permitting process for projects in areas that the agency believes are most suitable for solar.

The plan would both speed up permitting, because BLM has already evaluated the cumulative impacts of developing in these areas, and potentially avoid legal and administrative challenges from groups or individuals that can stall or even killing proposed projects.

BLM has targeted approving the plan by December, Stone-Manning said.

The draft programmatic EIS and updated plan will be formally published in the Federal Register on Friday, kicking off a 90-day public-comment period running through April 18.

A climate response

Climate change is driving the Interior focus on accelerating utility-scale renewable energy on federal lands, Daniel-Davis emphasized.

“The president has been crystal clear: The time to act on climate is now,” Daniel-Davis said. “Climate change poses an existential threat, not just to our environment, but to our health, or communities, and our economic well-being.”

The administration has prioritized meeting an Energy Act of 2020 goal to permit 25,000 MW of solar, wind and geothermal power projects on federal lands by 2025. President Joe Biden has also set a goal of a 100 percent carbon-free energy sector by 2035.

The more-than-decade-old original Western Solar Plan, which was groundbreaking at the time, identified 17 solar energy zones where projects would undergo streamlined permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

The updated draft plan ditches the term “solar energy zones” for the term “priority areas.”

BLM, in December 2022, released last year a set of three proposed alternatives — outlined broadly, with no specific sites identified — for the new priority areas.

The three alternatives on federal lands within 10 miles of transmission lines, on “previously disturbed or degraded lands,” or on lands that are both degraded and within 10 miles of existing transmission lines.

The proposed plan outlined Wednesday follows that same course, but also makes adjustments to the existing plan, such as removing the 2,650-acre Los Mogotes East Solar Energy Zone in southern Colorado, designated in the 2012 plan, as a priority area for solar development.

The updated plan would also embark on amending resource management plans in the 11 states to “establish required programmatic design features for utility-scale solar energy development on BLM-administered lands” that minimize impacts to plants, soils and wildlife habitat.

“Creating a balance between renewable energy, conservation and other multiple uses is central to this effort,” Daniel-Davis said.

Balancing solar, landscape health

The Biden administration’s BLM, to date, has approved 47 renewable energy projects — 16 solar, 11 geothermal power and 20 geo-tie power lines connecting projects to the electricity grid — since 2021. Collectively, those projects would cover about 35,000 acres of BLM-managed lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, according to bureau data.

The 16 solar projects, primarily in Arizona and Nevada, would cover 33,000 acres, and if all are built, could produce 4,644 MW of electricity, or enough to power about 1.5 million homes.

Daniel-Davis noted the Biden administration last year that would allow BLM to cut by as much as 80 percent the acreage rental and capacity fees for wind and solar power projects proposed in specific areas.

Most conservation leaders have applauded the Biden administration’s focus on renewable energy on public lands.

“Renewable energy on public lands can be a win-win-win. Better tribal engagement, better community buy-in and lower impact siting leads to faster, better projects,” said Justin Meuse, director of government relations for energy and climate at the Wilderness Society, in a statement.

But others, including Nevada-based Basin and Range Watch, as well as residents in communities in Nevada and California, have expressed concerns about the solar build-out. They have raised concerns about impacts to wildlife habitat and native plant species, as well as the location of projects near private property.

Kevin Emmerich, a co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, this week raised concerns about the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project in the Pahrump Valley west of Las Vegas. Rough Hat Clark is part of a cluster of large-scale solar projects in the valley under review by BLM that he said could negatively impact native plants and animals, including the Mojave Desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

BLM last week unveiled a for the Rough Hat Clark project that would set construction and restoration parameters, including setting development density caps and mandating construction techniques that would reduce impacts to vegetation and soils.

“While the BLM and the solar developers will do their best to minimize impacts, this can be considered a great loss of old-growth Mojave Desert Habitat,” Emmerich said. “Solar energy should be developed on rooftops, over parking lots and on previously disturbed sites, not on intact habitat.”