The Interior Department is moving toward finalizing rules, policies and projects that it says should ensure renewable energy’s unprecedented growth spurt continues on federal land after President Obama leaves office.
Building a clean energy program from scratch, the Bureau of Land Management has approved 60 commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal projects that would power millions of homes and businesses.
"We are incredibly proud of what the agency, with so many partners and so many private developers, has been able to accomplish in the renewable energy realm," BLM Director Neil Kornze said in an interview. "We’ve gone from a beat of zero to a beat of at least 60 miles per hour."
Up next is a set of ambitious rules and policies that Dylan Fuge, BLM’s counselor to Kornze on energy, said would "finish the job" begun by Obama.
Among the administration’s priorities outlined to E&E News by Fuge and others:
- Finalize a rule to launch competitive leasing for renewable energy on federal land across the West.
- Establish two solar energy zones (SEZs) on federal tracts along the Nevada-California line and identify the first wind energy zones where projects would be encouraged through streamlined permitting.
- Direct BLM state offices to identify solar and wind energy zones when resource management plans are amended or updated.
- Authorize construction of the first phase of the 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming, the largest wind project in North America, and the TransWest Express transmission line, which will carry the project’s electricity to major Western load centers.
The competitive leasing rule, first proposed two years ago, is Interior’s top remaining task.
The rule would set up a process for renewable energy on federal land that’s similar to that for oil and gas development, letting industry bid for a lease on nominated parcels and setting rental and bonding requirements to ensure a fair rate of return for taxpayers (E&ENews PM, Sept. 25, 2014).
The rule’s big beneficiary would be solar power, allowing BLM to hold regular competitive lease sales in 19 SEZs on nearly 300,000 acres in six states.
It’s also essential to meeting the goals of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which Interior finalized last month. The plan established 388,000 acres of "development focus areas" within a 10.8-million-acre federal planning area that, like the solar zones, are deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewable energy or transmission line projects.
BLM wants to hold lease sales in the desert plan for solar development, as well as commercial-scale wind and geothermal power. Projects would undergo a streamlined permitting process that would take less than a year.
But that won’t happen until the competitive leasing rule is finalized.
"This is the energy of the 21st century, and we need a program to match that," said Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at the Wilderness Society. "Right now, BLM is still permitting these wind and solar projects under the same procedures as they use for roads and telephone lines. So this rulemaking is an effort to really modernize the agency’s approach to renewable energy development on public lands."
But the final rule has been under review since March by the White House Office of Management and Budget, mostly due to resistance from the wind and solar industries.
The industries aren’t thrilled about rental rates and are concerned about changes to megawatt capacity fees, bonding rates and lease fees. They’re also uncertain about adopting a system that guides them to pre-screened "zones" that may not align with where the energy resource is located.
Tom Vinson, vice president of federal regulatory affairs for the American Wind Energy Association, said the industry appreciates the administration’s "overall commitment to expanding renewable energy." But he said he’s concerned that the final rule "will further undermine interest in wind energy projects on public lands by making existing barriers even worse."
"We hope to see improvements in the rule’s workability in the final version, but there will remain challenges with the underlying concept," he added.
Fuge said BLM and the White House are working "proactively" to address the industry’s concerns.
"I think, big picture, there’s a broad recognition within the administration that supporting robust renewable energy development is an important component of the administration’s climate goals," he said.
"BLM recognizes its role in supporting that development, while also ensuring it meets its mandate to obtain fair market value for the American public when it makes the public lands available to large, industrial, private-sector uses."
‘Hey, this stuff works’
When Obama took office in early 2009, he made his "New Energy for America" agenda a top priority.
At the time, not a single large-scale solar energy project had been approved on federal land, and only a handful of small geothermal and wind power projects had been approved, with a total capacity of about 1,500 MW.
Since then, BLM has approved 60 utility-scale renewables projects that would have the capacity to generate 15,569 MW of electricity — enough to power about 5.1 million homes and solidify renewable energy as a significant part of the nation’s energy portfolio for years to come.
That’s well ahead of the 10,000 MW goal for 2015 set by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Interior crossed that threshold in 2012.
BLM is already on its way to meeting the goals in Obama’s 2013 Climate Action Plan, which challenged Interior to approve 20,000 MW of non-hydropower renewable energy projects on federal and tribal lands by 2020.
"We didn’t have a [renewable energy] industry in 2008, and I think that’s one of the more underappreciated hallmarks of this administration," said Bobby McEnaney, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project. "I think history will show many years from now what an amazing transformation it’s been."
The effort has critics, particularly congressional Republicans and the oil and gas industry. They say the administration has focused too much attention on renewables, to the detriment of other domestic energy resources.
And some prominent conservation groups and American Indian tribes have challenged BLM’s approval of some early projects, claiming the agency rushed to approve them without fully analyzing potential impacts to natural and cultural resources.
Some of those approved projects were later canceled in the face of lawsuits or financial problems.
Consider the massive 709 MW Imperial Valley Solar Project in Imperial County, Calif., and the 663 MW Calico Solar Energy Project in San Bernardino County, Calif., both of which were approved in October 2010. The approval for both projects was challenged in federal court by conservation and American Indian groups, and later was withdrawn at the request of the developers for legal or financial reasons.
BLM has had trouble defending its approval of other major projects.
That was clear when a federal judge in Nevada last year threw out BLM’s 2013 approval of what was projected to be the Silver State’s largest wind power project, ruling that the agency did not properly evaluate potential impacts to golden eagles and Mojave Desert tortoises (Greenwire, Nov. 4, 2015).
Still, half the 60 projects approved so far either have begun operation or are in some active stage of construction, Fuge said.
"I think that’s the proof in the pudding that the program is working," he said.
Those 30 projects include some that were considered impossible a decade ago.
Among those is California’s 750 MW McCoy Solar Energy Project, which is under construction and, when finished and placed into operation, is projected to be the world’s largest solar plant. Similarly, the Golden State’s 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which began operating in late 2013, is the world’s largest concentrating solar power plant.
Projects like these, and the technology that makes them work, would never have gotten off the ground without the administration’s "forward-thinking" policies and commitment to making them a reality, said Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
"A decade ago, these types of projects were not found anywhere in the world, and now there are many of these projects here and around the world," Ronen said. "People are realizing, ‘Hey, this stuff works.’"
Much of the ongoing momentum will focus on solar power. That’s due partly to the fact that some of the world’s best solar resources are in the Southwest, where there are large tracts of federal land.
BLM wants to finalize as many as two new solar energy zones along the Nevada-California line as part of an update of the agency’s resource management plan for the Las Vegas and Pahrump field offices, which cover millions of acres in Clark and Nye counties.
BLM is targeting the region because of California’s aggressive renewable portfolio standard. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last month signed a bill requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. State-regulated utilities already must meet a 50 percent renewable energy standard by 2030.
"I think everybody recognizes the potential presented by this area because of where it’s situated relative to transmission and the California market," Fuge said.
BLM is working to make identifying SEZs a "part of the normal planning process" when amending or updating land-use plans, he said.
SEZs are a major component of the Obama administration’s renewables development effort.
Interior spent years conducting a programmatic environmental impact statement analyzing millions of acres of public land. The result was the Western Solar Plan — approved by former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2012 — which included 17 SEZs. Two additional SEZs were established in 2013 in Arizona and California.
If fully developed, projects in the SEZs could produce as much as 27 gigawatts of solar energy — enough to power about 8 million homes.
Of the 60 renewables projects approved by Interior, 36 are solar projects. If all are built, they will have the capacity to generate 10,148 MW of electricity, or enough to power more than 3 million homes.
"Without a doubt, the Obama administration has been the most solar-friendly administration in modern history," said Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
"The proof of Obama’s success is the phenomenal development of the solar industry during his tenure, which has grown from 1.2 GW at the end of 2008 to an expected 41.5 GW by the end of 2016."
‘Legacy’ wind project
Installed wind power capacity has reached record levels during the Obama administration, but unlike solar, much of that has occurred on private and other non-federal lands.
BLM has approved 11 wind energy projects on federal land since 2009. If built, they would have the capacity to produce 4,767 MW of electricity, or enough to power 1.4 million homes.
Fuge said BLM is working with the industry to develop a wind resource mapping tool that will help regulators and developers identify sites on federal lands where the wind resource is high but natural resource conflicts are low.
BLM is also working to develop the first energy zones specifically designated for wind power development. "Certainly, that’s something we’ve heard from the wind industry that they’re interested in," Fuge said.
But those efforts will not be completed by year’s end, Fuge said. "We’re probably a little ways off from the next formal designated leasing area for wind."
One of BLM’s top remaining priorities is to authorize construction of the first phase of the 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in southeast Wyoming.
Chokecherry and Sierra Madre, proposed by Denver-based Anschutz Corp., is a "legacy" project for BLM, Fuge said.
Interior in 2012 issued a record of decision approving the project. But the ROD authorized BLM to proceed with site-specific analysis for things like the locations of individual turbines.
BLM in March issued an environmental assessment and draft finding of no significant impact for siting the first 500 turbines as part of the project’s first phase (E&ENews PM, March 9).
The Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft environmental impact statement in April analyzing the potential impacts to bald and golden eagles of authorizing the 500 turbines (E&ENews PM, April 20).
Both documents are expected to be finalized in the coming weeks, allowing construction to begin early next year.
BLM is also expected soon to issue an ROD for the 727-mile TransWest Express transmission line project, also proposed by Anschutz. It would carry up to 3,000 MW from Chokecherry and other wind projects in Wyoming across portions of Colorado and Utah to a substation in southern Nevada, about 25 miles south of Las Vegas.
BLM last year issued a final environmental impact statement for the project, which the Obama administration considers a top priority (Greenwire, May 1, 2015).
The TransWest Express project is likely to face challenges.
The Wilderness Society and others are concerned about the power line’s proposed route, which they say would harm greater sage grouse, desert tortoises and other wildlife.
"This is a project that could be important for renewable energy," the Wilderness Society’s Daue said. "Unfortunately, the developer and the BLM seem to be headed down the path to selecting a route that instead of following designated utility corridors is going to be cutting across wild and important habitat in northwest Colorado and southeast Utah."
Meanwhile, BLM is moving forward on a list of five solar and two geothermal power projects deemed priorities for this year and 2017.
But one is the 287 MW Soda Mountain Solar Project, which BLM approved in April. The photovoltaic solar plant would cover more than 1,700 acres of federal land and would have the capacity to power 86,000 homes and businesses.
BLM approved the project despite near-unanimous opposition from the National Park Service, scientists and numerous conservation groups because of its location near the Mojave National Preserve.
The future of the project is in doubt after the San Bernardino County board of supervisors two months ago voted not to approve the county’s environmental review of the project (Greenwire, Aug. 24).
BLM is currently conducting an environmental impact statement for the 300 MW Desert Quartzite Solar Project in Southern California’s Riverside County. The project, proposed for 4,900 acres of BLM land, likely won’t be approved until next year.
A number of the priority projects would be located on Native American or private tracts. BLM is involved only to approve transmission lines proposed to cross agency property.
Among them is the 100 MW Aiya Solar Project on about 900 acres on the Moapa River Indian Reservation in Clark County, about 40 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Interior approved the project last month, with BLM assenting to the use of agency lands for transmission lines (E&ENews PM, Sept. 15).
Kornze said he sees many other large-scale projects in the future.
"As technology gets better and as transmission gets developed, and we focus more on renewable resources instead of fossil fuels, we will see not just the desert Southwest serving as the hub of renewable energy development, but it will spread to other corners of the country and other parts of the West," Kornze said.
"We’re excited to have built a program that is not simply something that took place during this administration. It’s now part of the way we do business."