Clearing Up the Record on Solar Energy on Public Lands

This week, Los Angeles Times published the first article of a long-awaited series about the impacts of large scale-solar projects on the Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, the first story failed to provide a fully accurate picture of the reality and efforts underway to ensure we have a robust and successful national solar program.

As I have discussed in my blogs, I’ve spent my entire career – almost 40 years – protecting America’s public lands. My mission at NRDC was straightforward: to preserve our forests and rangelands, wilderness areas, wetlands, free-flowing rivers and beaches from destructive activities such as coal mining, oil and gas drilling, road construction and other commercial development. But our changing climate is changing everything, including our conservation goals. We are faced with hard choices. Those choices entail trade-offs, but I have confidence we’re going to be able to strike the right balance.

About three years ago, I learned two things: The first one was that climate change was already having real impacts on the lands and resources that I have been working for so long to protect, and the second was that that there were more than 100 pending applications for renewable energy projects, both wind and solar, in areas of California that I had devoted a lot of time and effort to protecting.

And I had an epiphany – I realized that everything that I had worked for in my career was threatened directly by climate change or by unmanaged renewable energy development. So I switched not only the focus of my work but how I did it in order to facilitate environmentally responsible renewable energy development.

I did it not through litigating but through consensus building efforts, involving conservation groups, utilities and solar energy companies, federal and state regulators and many other stakeholders. And when I saw through those efforts what good could result, I embarked on an exciting and yet challenging undertaking to help develop a robust national solar energy program that would provide a balanced approach to protecting important landscapes and wildlife while helping the solar industry to succeed.

In 2009, the Bureau of Land Management saw a 78 percent increase in applications for solar energy projects on public lands, from 107 to 223 that were pending review, and only 2 projects had progressed to the stage of environmental reviews. Funding made available during this time through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act helped “fast-track” the permitting of nine large-scale solar projects for development on public lands, including BrightSource’s Ivanpah project.

But despite the Los Angeles Times’ suggestion, NRDC was never involved in moving that project forward.  Rather, our only engagement was to submit detailed comments to the BLM and to the Interior Department in the public review process before the agencies made their final decision on permitting it. (See full comments here).

It is true that many of the first projects that came out of the gate, Ivanpah included, raised serious concerns about the immediate and long-term environmental impacts on public lands, wildlife and other natural resources.  Here are some reasons why this happened:

  • In the absence of any policy or guidance from the BLM as to what were appropriate sites for solar development, companies got a free hand in selecting the sites they wanted to develop on public lands
  • The selection process for these sites unfortunately didn’t incorporate environmental and cultural heritage considerations – something that Interior, BLM, environmental and conservation groups and many other stakeholders have been working to ensure are an underlying aspect of the siting process going forward
  • BLM had no history of dealing with this new type of energy resource, which is very different than oil and gas. On the contrary, the agency had little expertise in permitting these types of projects
  • Insufficient and inconsistent environmental reviews at the front end of the planning process and major investments by solar developers made it difficult to ”fix”  these projects and in many cases resulted in costly modifications to lessen some of their impacts

The Los Angeles Times comparison of solar to oil and gas development on public lands is also misreported as is the important progress by Interior and BLM in prioritizing environmentally responsible development on public lands. In fact, my colleague Jessica Goad from the Center of American Progress has detailed in a blog some of the key facts that the article overlooked. Here’s a summary from her excellent post:

  • The 21 million acres is the amount of public land that could be made available to solar energy development in six western states – AZ, CA, CO, NV UT, NM – rather than the amount that will be eventually leased. These preselected lands have the fewest environmental conflicts and high solar potential
  • Of the 21 million acres of land that BLM proposed to make available for solar projects, Interior announced in October 2011, in response to more than 100,000 public comments, that it would give incentives and preference to projects sited within 285,000 acres of ‘solar energy zones’ 
  • All in all, 7 solar projects were given the green light on public lands in California as of the end of 2011, totaling approximately 28,000 acres. And an Interior Department analysis suggests that the most solar that would likely be developed on BLM land in six western states over the next 20 years is 214,000 acres
  • In a report released in May 2011, the Interior stated that, “currently, 38.2 million acres of public lands are under lease for oil and gas devel­opment, of which 16.6 million acres are ac­tive and 21.6 million acres are inactive
  • According to a Wilderness Society analysis, over 50 million acres of public lands are already available to oil and gas in five states – CO, NM, MT, UT, WY

While some have called for a complete ban on large scale solar projects on public lands in favor of  deployment of much smaller power generation options such as rooftop solar,  the reality is that small-scale generation, by itself, even with an aggressive target, is not sufficient.

NRDC’s detailed analyses of this issue have revealed that along with greatly increased energy efficiency, energy conservation and roof-tops and other important measures, we need large scale projects to meet our climate goals. Even though we need large scale projects, however, we still must make every effort to ensure that these projects are built on appropriate places. Simply put, we need a broad portfolio of solar power projects – big and small, urban and rural, and on appropriate private and public lands – to meet our current climate goals.

Designing a solar program that balances the nation’s need for increasing solar production from public lands and the need to protect the publicly owned resources of those lands is a tall order. We believe that a ‘solar energy zones’ approach – which the Interior Department recently endorsed – is the right way to go.

Interior’s solar zones based approach would guide solar projects to the appropriate places – areas with high solar potential – helping minimize impacts to wildlife and sensitive lands while reducing risk and uncertainty for investors. A solar program like the one Interior has proposed is a major step toward achieving the right balance, and we look forward to continue working with Interior and the BLM, conservation groups, the solar industry and utilities to develop a strong and comprehensive final program.

The planet is changing and we must change with it. The traditional conventions –including some traditional conventions of the environmental community – must yield to the new realities. Our greatest challenge today is to make the hard choices that will provide the greatest environmental benefit for all and result in the fewest impacts to wildlife and wild lands.

This post was originally published on the Natural Resources Defense Council’s website and was reprinted with permission.

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I grew up in the East, and was never any further West than Ithaca, NY, until my second year in law school. That summer I made my first trip West and fell in love with its wilderness areas, stunning landscapes and wonderful wildlife. Two years later, we moved to northern California where I've lived ever since. I have been incredibly lucky to spend my entire professional career at NRDC, beginning in 1972 as a part-timer, when my kids were little, and then graduating to a full timer as they got older. All of my work has focused on protecting the West's special places -- especially its federal public lands. I am now working to help the West respond effectively to the climate crisis and specifically to ensure that the region's renewable energy resources get developed in a way that protects our wildlands and wildlife. When I'm asked how it is that I've been able to do this work for so long, I always say it's because of the places I've fallen in love with along the way and the incredible people I've gotten to meet and work with over the years.

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