It’s one thing for President Obama to direct his administration to use federal lands to develop large-scale renewable energy projects.
It’s another thing to make that vision a reality.
No one knows that better than Ray Brady, manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Renewable Energy Coordination Office in Washington, D.C.
A soft-spoken geologist by training, Brady is the one then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other top Interior Department brass turned to six years ago to implement the president’s "New Energy for America" agenda, calling for using public lands to drive a sweeping expansion of renewable energy production.
Brady, 67, is retiring today after more than 40 years at BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey. He put a renewables pre-screening and fast-track permitting system into place that has resulted in the agency since 2009 approving 57 commercial-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects covering more than 305,000 acres of federal lands across the West.
The effort has not been without critics, particularly GOP leaders in Congress and the oil and gas industry, which complains that the Obama administration has focused too much attention on renewables to the detriment of other domestic energy resources. And some conservation groups and American Indian tribes challenged BLM’s approval of some early projects, claiming BLM rushed to approve them without fully analyzing potential impacts to natural and cultural resources.
But few would argue that the effort has not been historic in nature. Consider the 750-megawatt McCoy Solar Energy Project in California, which is under construction and, when finished, is projected to be the world’s largest solar plant. Or the 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming, which is expected to soon receive final approval to begin construction of the first phase of what will be the largest wind farm in North America.
Similarly, California’s 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which began operating last year, is the world’s largest concentrating solar power plant.
All told, the 57 projects would have the capacity to produce more than 15,000 MW of electricity — enough to power 5.1 million homes and solidify renewable energy as a significant part of the nation’s energy portfolio for years to come.
"What we’ve achieved has been a major accomplishment," Brady said. "It’s contributed significantly to the clean energy needs of our country as part of our new energy frontier that Secretary Salazar established when he was here. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished."
None of that would have been possible without Brady and the national renewable energy team he led, building a renewable energy program from the ground up, observers say. They had to figure out how to screen and review project applications, develop rental rates and fee structures, and establish a system to identify suitable sites for development.
Salazar doesn’t hold back in praising Brady, whom he calls "a visionary" who "served a keystone to opening up our public lands for renewable energy development."
Bob Abbey, BLM director from 2009 to 2012, gives Brady credit for taking what was essentially a presidential mandate to prioritize renewables development and serving as a kind of boots-on-the-ground general.
"He truly led the development of this program, building it from the ground up," said Abbey, who is now a consultant on public lands issues living in Moon Lake, Miss. "When I assumed the position as director, shortly after Ken Salazar was confirmed as secretary, we both benefited from having Ray’s knowledge and leadership skills to help us move quickly to build the program we have today.
"I give him all the credit in the world for helping us achieve the kind of success we’ve had in such a short period of time," he added.
Brady has no doubt that renewable energy, especially solar power, will continue to grow, thanks to the regulatory system BLM has in place and is still building today.
Brady has spent much of the final months of his BLM career putting the finishing touches on a series of regulatory initiatives that are designed to ensure that renewable energy development continues on federal land for as long as the market supports it.
"Ray deserves a huge amount of credit for turning what was essentially a mandate from the administration into actual gains on the ground," said Bobby McEnaney, deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project. "I don’t think people are appreciative of the struggles it took to get to this point. He’s definitely an unsung hero of this administration’s drive to make renewable energy the force that it’s becoming."
A daunting task
Congress, as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, set a goal for the Interior Department to approve permits for 10,000 MW of new, non-hydropower renewable energy projects on federal lands by 2015.
Brady in 2005 was appointed to lead a BLM team that would implement the law’s provisions. Those included a mandate that BLM establish so-called oil and gas pilot offices in areas with heavy drilling activity to improve the drilling permit process.
But not much was done to address the renewable energy component of the law until Obama was elected and made solar, wind and geothermal power development a priority of his administration.
Salazar’s first executive order as Interior secretary was to make the responsible development of industrial-scale renewable energy a top goal on federal land. The former Colorado senator vowed to meet the 10,000 MW threshold ahead of schedule by aggressively tapping the wind, solar and geothermal power potential on the West’s expansive federal lands.
The task to reach the goal was left to BLM, and Salazar urged the agency to do it three years ahead of schedule.
"He really challenged us and said, ‘You know, this is clearly a priority of this administration, and we should be able to meet that goal by 2012,’" Brady said.
One of Abbey’s first moves as BLM director was to tap Brady to head up the newly formed Renewables Energy Team, which would engineer the system for screening and permitting projects capable of producing thousands of megawatts of clean energy on federal lands.
But when Brady started on that task in 2009, not a single solar energy project had been approved and built on federal land; a handful of small wind power projects had been built, but most were designed to test wind conditions, not generate electricity.
There were, however, about 400 pending renewable energy applications covering more than 3 million acres of federal land, he said. Complicating matters was the fact that most of the applications were speculative at best and bogus at worst.
BLM for years had in place a solar development system that allowed anyone to apply for a right-of-way grant, though applicants needed to submit plans for development with the agency within two years.
"What some of them wanted was to get the [project] approval without really having any intent of developing the project, so that they could then sell it to others who had the means to build the project," Abbey said.
Brady, drawing on his experiences with oil and gas drilling permits as the leader of the team implementing the Energy Policy Act, established renewable energy coordination offices in four states — Arizona, California, Nevada and Wyoming — to tackle the application backlog.
By 2010, the agency had whittled more than 400 permits down to about 20 so-called priority solar, wind and geothermal power projects deemed to have the best chance to be approved and ultimately built.
Meanwhile, Brady began overhauling the agency’s renewable energy permitting to include pre-screening of projects and add due diligence requirements designed to eliminate speculative claims and ensure that the developers had the means to build and operate a utility-scale project. This included adding bonding requirements and timing deadlines in the permitting process.
"Bob Abbey came up with the term ‘smart from the start,’" Brady said. "We adopted that as a policy to make sure that before we commit a lot of time and effort in reviewing and processing an individual application, let’s make sure that we first do some screening and pre-review of each of those applications."
Salazar also tasked the agency with an ambitious programmatic environmental impact statement to map out locations on federal lands in six Southwestern states where commercial-scale solar power development would have the least natural resource conflicts. It would also address thorny issues like withdrawal of public lands from mining claims, project impacts on water resources, conflicts with nearby military operations and impacts on visual resources.
The result was the Western Solar Plan, which identified 17 solar energy zones (SEZs) with high solar power potential and low environmental impacts. Projects proposed in these SEZs would have a streamlined permitting process.
Salazar signed a record of decision finalizing the Western Solar Plan in October 2012.
Most of the approved projects have been large-scale solar. Since 2009, BLM has approved 34 solar projects capable of producing more than 9,700 MW of electricity.
"Our greatest growth in the solar industry has taken place under this administration," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Ray Brady was instrumental in these efforts, and his presence at the BLM will be sorely missed."
Despite the unprecedented growth, some observers fear BLM has not done enough to make renewable energy a permanent part of the agency’s regulatory framework.
Brady does not dispute these concerns.
"Everything that we’ve stood up in our program, both solar and wind, has all been through issuance of policies," he said. "They haven’t really been incorporated into regulations that are more permanent."
A big step toward that goal is finalizing a new leasing rule for solar and wind projects within the solar energy zones. Currently, winning bidders on parcels in the zones secure only the right to get their project reviewed by the agency instead of a lease, as is done for oil and gas projects.
The interim bidding process has had mixed results.
BLM’s first competitive auction in late 2013 involving two SEZs in Colorado failed, drawing no industry bids. Privately, some industry officials expressed concerns about the process, calling it confusing.
But last year, an auction involving six tracts in the Dry Lake SEZ in Clark County, Nev., drew three successful bids. BLM last summer formally approved three large-scale solar projects in the zone that were the first to go through an expedited review process designed to entice developers to locate projects within one of the SEZs (E&ENews PM, June 1).
Brady has spent much of his final days at BLM working to finish the rule, which he said should be sent next month to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final approval. The final rule would then be published by year’s end and could be finalized by early next year, he said.
That leasing rule will also include many of the policies, such as bonding and other due diligence requirements for renewable energy projects, making them a part of the agency’s regulatory framework.
"Finalizing that rule is critical to cementing this whole smart from the start approach that they always talk about," said Alex Daue, assistant director for renewable energy at the Wilderness Society. "They have the foundation in place, but efforts like finishing the wind and solar leasing rule are crucial."
Also by year’s end, BLM plans to unveil a wind resource mapping tool that will help regulators and developers identify the sites on federal lands where wind power resources are high but natural resource conflicts are low, Brady said.
Eventually, Brady said the agency will identify wind energy zones similar to the solar energy zones.
But while the U.S. Energy Information Administration has forecast that utility-scale solar installations will double by the end of 2016, Brady said he believes the days of large solar projects could be coming to an end.
For one, expiring federal tax credits will make securing financing for large projects more difficult. In addition, many states are already reaching mandates in their renewable portfolio standards requiring that a certain percentage of their electricity be purchased from renewable sources.
But BLM is working to meet the goals set by Obama in his 2013 Climate Action Plan, which challenged Interior to permit 20,000 MW of commercial-scale renewable energy projects by 2020.
"That’s the goal we have in place," Brady said. "We feel we can meet that goal."