Increasing Wind and Solar on Public Lands: Outside Magazine Article

I first heard about this idea from something on Jared Polis’s (Colorado’s now-governor) website. The fundamental idea is that public lands should not be used for oil and gas production, but should be used for more wind and solar production.

It is conceivable that different uses could co-exist on public lands (at least wind, and oil and gas, and grazing) as they do on private lands in Kansas and Colorado (and no doubt elsewhere). But the case being made seems to be that one group should be removed from public lands (oil and gas) and another group increased (solar and wind). It seems that it is framed as “either/or” and not “both/and.” And yet, oil and gas production has some commonalities with solar and wind.

First, solar and wind also have environmental impacts. Second, they can also be unaesthetic, and thereby potentially incompatible with recreation. Third, they tend to impact a greater surface area of land (than oil and gas), and fourth, they may require transmission lines instead of roads. I don’t know the relative impacts, but I do know that many environmental groups don’t seem to like new roads or transmission lines on public lands. fourth, solar and wind generate electricity which can’t substitute for fuel currently used in heating and transportation immediately, so there would be a transition during which fossil fuels will come from elsewhere. For me, these are all considerations.

BLM has much information on their solar and wind programs, solar and wind.

What’s interesting about this Outside story is that it takes for granted the idea that carbon is emitted by production on federal lands, and that stopping it will simply reduce carbon emissions. If we import oil and gas from other countries and use the same amount, it is difficult for me to see that that makes a positive difference to the environment (while making a negative difference to state coffers). If importing increases prices and decreases energy security, then it might not be a good thing at all for folks who depend on oil and gas products for heating and transportation, and are on the poor end of the financial spectrum.

Here’s the link to the Outside story.

Federal lands hold tremendous untapped potential for unleashing a renewables boom and sucking down the carbon dioxide that’s warming the globe, Huntley and other energy-policy experts say. While federal lands hold significant oil, gas, and coal reserves, they also have some of the nation’s best solar and wind resources. Yet TWS estimates that less than 5 percent of U.S. power from renewables is generated on federal land. The BLM alone manages more than 20 million acres with wind-energy potential in the 11 western states. Largely because of renewable-energy pushes from previous administrations, the BLM has approved about 11,000 megawatts worth of solar, wind, and geothermal projects.

But with some significant exceptions, such as the Ivanpah megasolar facility on BLM lands in California, which went online in 2014 and now powers 140,000 homes around the West, the renewable potential of the vast open landscapes of the federal estate is underdeveloped. And if oil and gas development is phased out under a Green New Deal bill—or any other legislation that tamps down greenhouse-gas emissions—renewables development on federal lands will be crucial to replace that energy.

Renewable-energy development is not without its own environmental consequences, though. The massive Ivanpah solar-thermal project, for example—at the time the largest solar facility in the world—disturbed habitat for the desert tortoise, blue-gray gnatcatcher, and other wildlife and forever changed the scenery in the Mojave Desert. Bird and bat deaths from encounters with wind turbines are well-documented. But conservation groups say that much has been learned from Ivanpah and other renewable-development projects about how to plan, develop, and monitor them in a way that reduces their impacts. Measures adopted through legislation could ensure that new projects avoid the mistakes of the past, they say.

It’s also interesting that conservation groups think that the renewable energy industry can reduce their impacts through improved monitoring and so on. I am curious as to why some industries seem to get the benefit of the doubt with regard to the environment and public lands (solar, wind) but others do not (timber, grazing, oil and gas).

Oh, and forests are mentioned in the article as well.

9 thoughts on “Increasing Wind and Solar on Public Lands: Outside Magazine Article”

  1. I’m not ready to accept some of the assumptions in this article. The idea that oil/gas fields need road whereas wind/solar fields need transmission lines: In my limited experience, oil fields had abundant electric lines, to run the pumps, plus road. In contrast, wind and solar fields, including the one pictured, seem to have little or no transmission lines above ground. Also, the biotic impacts of oil fields go far beyond the distributed footprints of the equipment, etc. Lastly, re “We’d have to replace lost oil fields with oil development elsewhere anyway.” Our recent Secretary of Interior said that we are now energy-independent and that our goal is to become energy-dominant on the world markets. If true, we can give up dominance and cut back on oil production and its essentially permanent effects on climate. JAB

    • James- my information was from a friend who worked on a Wyoming wind project, and my own experience being on our county Planning Commission for solar projects. Here is a news story about some wind transmission lines crossing federal land:

      On Friday, the TransWest Express Transmission Project won unanimous approval from the Wyoming Industrial Siting Council, the last of the state and federal approvals needed to move forward with its 3-gigawatt plan. This could allow the project to begin construction as early as next year, and open for business as early as 2023, Kara Choquette, communications director for TransWest, said in a Monday interview.

      First proposed in 2005, TransWest Express would stretch 730 miles from southwestern Wyoming through Colorado and Utah, to its connection to western grids at Nevada’s Hoover Dam. It will be a combination of high-voltage direct current and high-voltage alternating current systems, capable of carrying up to 3 gigawatts of power when it’s complete.

      About two-thirds of the TransWest route lies on federal land, Choquette noted, and the process of obtaining the federal environmental analysis, rights-of-way, easements and licenses to build on that land stretched from 2008 to last year. Wyoming was the last state in its path to grant approval, and the project now has to secure approval from the counties in Utah and Nevada it will cross before it can be built, she said.

      “There’s still more to go — there always is,” she said. “But these are very big milestones in de-risking the project and demonstrating that we can get things done.”

      Here’s a link to the story

      This is pretty interesting about the different needs for power in oil and gas operations in the Permian Basin in Texas and how energy is provided.

      You don’t see the lines around wind turbines because they are buried until they get to a substation, the transmission lines need to get the electricity from there to the consumers.

  2. “…and fourth, they may require transmission lines instead of roads.”

    Where there are transmission lines, there are service roads, as well. With wind power, there are roads to every turbine. Of course, we continue to need a portfolio of energy sources, to help reduce the amount of dirty power we generate.

    • I was thinking of the roads to haul the gas away compared to transmission lines to get the electricity away. Definitely wind turbines have roads leading to each turbine, and solar arrays have roads leading to them as well. Maybe it’s that O&G has roads, and solar and wind need transmission lines as well.

  3. Germany and the Middle East are eating our lunch with respect to solar power and wind energy. We’re losing our technical edge because we’re so hidebound. Imagine… a country with lots of excess petroleum, that runs its own country on solar and wind (or a significant portion of it), plus hydro (let’s not leave it out). That’s a position for market dominance. Currently we’re positioned to get hurt when the oil does run out. Sure you and I will be dead by then. But our grandkids will suffer it. Same argument can be made for climate change. Deny it all you want, you’re only hurting your grandchildren. One of the few cool things I’ve heard about China is they are working on a polymer strong enough to be a road surface so they can put photovoltaics in the roads themselves. Do we have anyone with the chutzpah to do that here? I’d rather we did. It’s long past time for our vaunted “innovation” society to act like it. Entrenched business interests will have to roll with it. It’s not like the military will ever not need petroleum. So the more of it we use on homes and cars, the less of it we will have when it gets scarce. The way I see it, we have a choice and it’s either/or.

    • Angelica, I don’t think it’s that simple. Here’s one story

      Also I don’t think oil is “running out”, it is especially unlikely if all the other countries have transitioned to other energy sources.

      I also think that many researchers in the US are doing innovative things with photovoltaics. DOE commissioned feedback from folks on what research would be most important. It’s kind of an interesting approach.

      On June 28, 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) released the Photovoltaics (PV) Innovation Roadmap Request for Information (RFI) for public response and comment. The RFI sought feedback from PV stakeholders, including research and commercial communities, about the most important research and development (R&D) pathways to improve PV cell and module technology to reach the SETO’s SunShot 2030 cost targets of $0.03/W for utility PV installations, $0.04/W for commercial scale installations, and $0.05/W for residential PV installations. Early-stage scientific and technological innovation that increases cell or module efficiency, maximizes annual energy production, decreases costs, and improves
      system durability and grid reliability is critical to continue to lower the costs of solar electricity and support greater energy affordability. To solicit feedback about these major PV technical challenges, the RFI asked questions covering four sections (please refer to the RFI for further background on each topic):
      1. Technological Research Priorities;
      2. Characterization and Modeling Techniques;
      3. Module Packaging and Reliability; and
      4. Portfolio Evaluation.
      A total of 89 RFI responses were received, including 37 from industrial companies or consultants, 28 from universities, 22 from national laboratories, one from a non-profit organization, and one from another government agency. This document presents aggregated information from all RFI responses, organized by the sections above. Please note that the Department of Energy (DOE) is not communicating an opinion or particular viewpoint about any of the responses described below, but rather publishing a RFI response summary so that the public may also benefit from the information received by DOE.

      Here’s a link to the document.

      Despite the color of the administration, the Congress sets budget priorities and the humble research bureaucrats of DOE continue to prioritize and fund innovation.

  4. “But conservation groups say that much has been learned from Ivanpah and other renewable-development projects about how to plan, develop, and monitor them in a way that reduces their impacts.”

    Yes, much has been learned, but still they push these less than eco-green alternatives to be installed in all the wrong places. And conservation groups turn a blind eye because many aspects are inconvenient truths.

    • Thanks for this link, Kevin! That post linked to this TWS post on the Green New Deal (perhaps oddly the title is “Public Land Protections Provide Pathways to a successful Green New Deal”:

      “Our public lands can be a renewable energy powerhouse for the nation. The power potential of wind, solar and geothermal projects approved on public lands to date already exceeds the hydroelectric dams managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which are capable of powering more than 4 million homes.  But we have barely scratched the surface: less than 5% of the nation’s renewable power comes from public lands (compared to more than 40% of coal!).

      Advancing renewable energy on public lands would create jobs and spur investment in a growing field. In 2016, solar employment grew 17 times faster than the U.S. economy. Solar alone now supports more jobs than the natural gas industry and twice the number of jobs as the coal industry.

      We can and should build out large-scale renewable projects in the right places and the right ways to avoid unintended consequences to the natural world. We should give geothermal, wind and solar every advantage on public lands, including identifying areas not to develop with the most important wildlands and wildlife habitat, fairly pricing access and increasing the efficiency and predictability of permitting.” (my italics)

      Ah.. “increasing the efficiency and predictability of permitting”.. that almost sounds like “removing environmental protections” when groups besides recreation and renewable energy ask for it..

      The job figures in the blog post also made me wonder a bit.
      The jobs could vary by state (like if a state have no oil and gas production for example) Here’s a link to Colorado employment figures. For 2017:

      The job figures in the blog post made me wonder a bit.

      The traditional energy sectors accounted for 3.4 percent of total Colorado employment compared with a national average of 2.3 percent, the report said.

      Among the biggest sectors in Colorado are oil and gas with more than 26,000 direct jobs; electric power generation with 25,412 jobs; and 28,412 jobs in transmission distribution and storage.

      “Solar makes up the largest segment of employment related to Electric Power Generation, with 7,819 jobs, followed by wind at 7,320 jobs,” the report said.

      Total energy efficiency-related jobs increased 7 percent to 32,306 in 2017. This includes workers involved in Energy Star appliance and lighting efficiency programs, traditional heating and air conditioning jobs, high efficiency and renewable heating and cooling, and advanced insulation.

      As to lithium mining.. I wonder whether TWS would support it on federal lands in this country.

  5. Your central thesis seems to be “oil and gas production has some commonalities with solar and wind.” Maybe, but there is one big difference: oil and gas are also killing the planet That’s a compelling argument against the government promoting it, regardless of what the alternative use of the federal land would be. Renewables “get the benefit of the doubt” with regard to potential mitigation because they are earlier in the learning curve, and I don’t think anyone is thinking that we can make burning carbon have less of an impact on the climate. (Yes, we can’t quit cold-turkey, but continuing to make it easier disincentivizes alternative energy sources.)

    In addition, the question of where renewable energy should be produced should include considering the effects of alternative locations. Why prioritize undeveloped public lands with unique values that could be lost when you can put solar panels on buildings, and wind farms in cornfields?


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