Federal land agency is behind the times on utility-scale solar buildout rules

Federal land agency is behind the times on utility-scale solar buildout rules
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The Bureau of Land Management, the single biggest steward of real estate in the U.S., often finds itself in the crossfire of heated arguments over how best to use and/or protect the more than 250 million acres it is responsible for across the American West.

To put these vast holdings in context, BLM lands account for 1 of every 10 acres of surface land in the country, so what the BLM does with these taxpayer-owned properties has a big impact on local environments as well as on local economies.

The agency is supposed to see that its lands are managed in the national interest and in a way that meets a long list of responsible-use requirements. BLM lands are set aside for wildlife management, for hunting and fishing, for protection of cultural and historical resources, for camping, boating, hiking, rock-climbing, biking and at least a dozen other purposes. 

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BLM lands are also used for natural-resource development — mostly logging, grazing, mining and gas and oil extraction — and in this arena, the agency has lagged in responding to America’s shift to renewables in the national energy economy. An overview by the agency published last year showed renewable energy development accounting for less than 1 percent of economic activity on BLM lands, while 70 percent was controlled by oil and gas interests.

As we explained in a report we published this summer, the agency’s approach to utility-scale solar shows why. Less than 1 percent of BLM land across the sun-rich southwestern U.S.— lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah — are qualified for solar energy development under BLM’s rules. Much more is potentially available under special variance rules — some 19 million acres out of the more than 100 million managed in the region — but those rules are a significant and an unevenly administered constraint on new solar development.

The good news: The Shiprock Solar project, the case study we cited to demonstrate the absurdity of the agency’s no-solar-development rules across most of its sunniest holdings, has since been greenlighted to advance. The proposed 372-megawatt solar-panel farm, in the shadow of the soon-to-be-shuttered, coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico, can now proceed through the various requisite environmental impact and permit-study hoops. 

But the special approval of this and several other big solar projects in recent months does not fix the larger problem at the BLM; a better, more streamlined policy is required under a change that will require stronger leadership from Washington informed by the realities of where electricity-generation markets are moving.

Variance proceedings are costly and slow, and the agency is long overdue for a rules adjustment that will open more BLM lands to renewable energy development without having to run a gauntlet of onerous rezoning requirements.

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For the town of Farmington, near the Shiprock site in New Mexico, the BLM approval is good news. The development will help offset some of the job and revenue losses the town and the surrounding area will suffer when the coal plant closes. The area has one of the biggest concentrations of power transmission in the country, so full approval would help open the door to a regional new energy sector that will be an important building block in community economic recovery.

The time has come for the BLM to make the process of getting projects like Shiprock to the starting gate the norm, not the exception.

Karl Cates and Seth Feaster are analysts at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.