Renewable Rush on Federal Land: Target in Covid Relief Bill

Here’s a story from Bloomberg:

President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda got a shot in the arm with the Covid relief bill, environmental attorneys say, particularly with provisions that will open up wide swaths of federal land to renewable energy development.

The measure, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday, requires by 2025 an increase of at least five times the amount of solar, wind and geothermal energy production currently on federal land. It also creates a new office in the Bureau of Land Management to coordinate renewable energy permitting among all federal lands agencies, including those in the Interior and Agriculture departments

I was wowed by the idea quoted “requires by 2025 an increase of at least five times the amount of solar, wind and geothermal energy production currently on federal land.” But that’s not actually what the bill says.

Here’s the actual text for the goal:

(a) IN GENERAL.—Not later than September 1, 2022, the Secretary shall, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture and other heads of relevant Federal agencies, establish national goals
for renewable energy production on Federal land.
(b) MINIMUM PRODUCTION GOAL.—The Secretary shall seek to issue permits that, in total, authorize production of not less than 25 gigawatts of electricity from wind, solar, and geothermal energy projects by not later than 2025, through management of public lands and administration of Federal laws.

Seeking to issue permits is not exactly requiring production, which is just as well, given that that seems to be an unrealistic target.

We’ve been following the Chokecherry Sierra Madre project, so I thought I’d try to relate that to this target. CSM would produce 3 GW, so we would need maybe eight of those in five (target 2025, this is 2021 so maybe actually four) years. That doesn’t seem too difficult…except folks have been working on our example project since 2006.

BLM says “As of March 2018, there were 35 BLM-approved wind energy projects on public lands with 3,284 megawatts of total installed capacity, enough to power one million homes.” so it’s clear that CSM is more giant project. But it has a big footprint, also.

Here’s BLM on solar:

The BLM approved its first project to generate solar energy on public lands in October 2010, and as of March 2018 had approved 25 solar projects, totaling 6,319 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity.

The Western Solar Plan guides development of utility-scale solar energy development on public lands. The plan established an initial 17 Solar Energy Zones in 2012 with access to transmission corridors and areas with high solar potential. Two additional Solar Energy Zones were designated in 2013. If fully built-out, projects in these zones could produce as much as 27,000 MW, enough to power eight million homes.

This plan is complimented by the BLM’s Solar and Wind Energy Rule, which became effective on January 18, 2017. The rule brings down the near-term rates and fees paid by solar developers on BLM-managed land, ensures transparency and predictability, and allows for competitive bidding processes. The rule also reduces land and resource conflicts by incentivizing the development of solar projects in designated leasing areas (DLAs). These are areas that are the most amenable to solar development from both a remediation and a generation standpoint.

Where might these places be: here’s a link to the Solar Energy Zones.
Here’s a link to BLM’s mapping of wind energy areas, mapped with restrictions.

Three points.. First is that FS land does not seem to be part of BLM’s mapping?

Second is that wind areas seem to overlap with sage grouse habitat, to some extent, in the Interior West.

Preventing solar and wind power from harming the ecosystems and their plants and animals was one of the Obama administration’s biggest challenges with renewables, and it may be one for the incoming administration as well, said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at Stanford Law School.

“The incoming Biden administration will have to balance pressure to identify a clear path for building new clean energy infrastructure with ongoing concerns about the dilution of federal protections for wild lands and critical habitats,” Cullenward said.

Third, it will be interesting to see what this level of pressure will do to analysis and permitting efforts.

16 thoughts on “Renewable Rush on Federal Land: Target in Covid Relief Bill”

  1. For some perspective, I looked for the averge size of a solar farm and found this:

    “For a typical solar installation, the general rule of thumb is that for every 1kW of solar panels needed, the area required is approximately 100 square feet. This means, that, for a 1mW solar PV power plant, the area required is about 2.5 acres or 100,000 square feet.”

    25 gigawatts is 25,000 megawatts.

    25,000 megawatts * 2.5 acres = 62,500 acres.

    You might think of these 62,500 acres as a collection of clearcuts that won’t be replanted or restored — a permanent land-use change.

  2. You are correct that the USFS is not included in the BLM’s Wind PEIS issued in 2005. I was the deciding official on the BLM land use planning decision that followed the Wind PEIS. Although asked to join in this programmatic Wind NEPA, the USFS declined because it planned to issue a wind directive. That wind directive was not issued until 2011. To my knowledge, the USFS has not approved one wind project using this wind directive which many in the wind industry found unworkable. Moreover, those permitting decisions are made at the Forest and Regional level and from my experience there appears to be little support for wind projects on Forests. I believe there is only one USFS wind project. A much litigated USFS wind project in Vermont, not permitted under the Wind directive.

    • Thanks for the information, Rebecca! What exactly do you mean by “not permitted under the Wind directive”.. it was permitted before it came into effect? Or some other complication?

      • It was permitted using existing special use permitting authorities not the 2011 Wind Directive that created more detailed requirements for a wind energy special use permit.

        • Thanks again. Looks like it made it out of litigation..
          A mere 15 turbines..

          ” The 15-turbine Deerfield Wind project has begun generating power, capping a permitting and construction process that spanned more than a decade.
          Avangrid Renewables “began commercial operation at its newest wind farm, and first in Vermont, the Deerfield Wind Farm, in the towns of Readsboro and Searsburg today,” the developer announced Friday morning.

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          The 30-megawatt facility includes eight Siemens Gamesa turbines located west of Route 8 in Readsboro and seven others in Searsburg, east of the highway.

          The turbimes in Searsburg are on the same side of the mountain ridge as Green Mountain Power’s smaller, 11-turbine facility, which began operating in 1997.

          The new wind farm also is the first in the nation to be located on U.S. Forest Service land.

          “This project in concept has been at the forefront of our program of work for many years,” John Sinclair, forest supervisor for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forests, said in a release. “Today we are proud to recognize the dedicated USFS employees, local leaders, partners and government agencies that have contributed countless hours of work toward making the development of our nation’s first commercial-scale wind energy facility on National Forest System lands a reality here in Vermont.”

          The project faced determined opposition while gaining a certificate of public good from the state Public Utility Commission in 2009, and later challenges over the use of national forest lands for a wind farm and over potential environmental impacts to wildlife and a nearby wilderness area.

          “This is a sad day for many Vermonters and people who care about wildlife and value the importance of wilderness,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which mounted a court challenge over impacts on the nearby George D. Aiken Wilderness Area.”

  3. Not quite sure what point you try to make about “clearcuts”…? Most areas to be developed are likely grass/shrub lands not forest, and will generate annual income for foreseeable future. I agree about land use change, but so are freeways, residential/commercial etc. Is federal land used for renewable power not preferable to, say, coal mines and O/G fields?

    • My only point is that this that solar farms are a permanent land-use change. Yes, the land may be desert, ag land, grassland, forest, chaparral, or other vegetation type. Maybe solar is a better land use, I don’t know. But timber harvesting, a sustainable land use, is somehow seen by some folks as much worse. Clear 160 acres for an orchard or vineyard or solar farm, and you don’t hear much about it.

      • To add to that…

        For solar and wind to work to reduce carbon, they have to stay in place permanently. This may seem obvious, but O&G and coal are eventually finished and reclaimed (gas wells 20-40 years) (folks may disagree on how well the reclamation is done, but..).

        So timber harvest, not permanent, grazing m/l permanent, trails permanent, solar and wind permanent, oil and gas permanent. In this round-up, timber and o&g are in the same corral.

        The permanence thing doesn’t matter so much for private, but I think should affect how we think about federal lands. If o&G leads to “industrialized landscapes”, wind and solar lead to “permanently industrialized landscapes”.. not that I’m necessarily against that, but perhaps some folks’ rhetoric will have to change.

    • Jim, if we could put the carbon issue to one side, I’d rather have (first) an underground coal mine with few roads, only for methane drainage wells (least disturbing to surface), that are vented for a few years then the whole surface disturbance is put to bed. Next I’d put solar, relatively small footprint- one road to get in, but permanent. Surface coal mines get restored quickly but are still disruptive. O&G depends on the number of wells and roads.. the density. Wind I am honestly not so sure about, vast acreages with roads, blinking lights, whirring blades and so on. I would rather recreate around O&G wells than within the footprint of a windfarm (and I’ve recreated in both places). There’s no bird and insect chopping in an gas field.

  4. On BLM land, near the California/Nevada border.,-115.4583391,4782m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

    More information:

    It’s fascinating to look at, as you drive by on the Interstate. The glow from the central boiler is mesmerizing. It’s a short-lived distraction, as there are multiple casino resorts at the border, on the way to Vegas.

    Edit: It looks like there are extensive solar panel arrays close by, too. The casino cluster helps show how big that really is.,-115.3522095,4779m/data=!3m1!1e3?hl=en

  5. Fossil fuels don’t depend on a permanent land use change, but they depend on long-term occupation of successive sites. So I think the “industrialization” argument is at best a wash. Maybe the wildlife effects, too. They’re just different kinds, but if you include the carbon effects the prevailing thought seems to be that you can mitigate effects of renewables better. (If you dedicate land to timber management, it’s kind of the same movable disturbance to a lesser degree.)

    • I don’t think the question is whether fossil fuels should be developed anywhere at any time. I think the question is whether that use should be allowed on federal lands. Some people, including soon to be President Biden are against future leases.
      My question was more “what are acceptable uses of federal lands for energy development?” and what are the arguments?

      If anything for carbon-free energy is OK, then are uranium and lithium mines OK? More hydro power dams?

      Why do some assume the best about solar and wind corporations impacts and the worst about oil and gas corporations impacts?

      I don’t know of a single gas well that needs an incidental take permit for bald eagles.

      I’m not very confident about “prevailing thoughts”..

      • So we think they were answering different questions. Your point about incidental take permits was interesting enough to start my new year by looking into it.

        Eagles are not listed under ESA, but are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (and the Bald/Golden Eagle Protection Acts). It’s clear that they may be adversely affected by oil and gas operations to the point that an incidental take permit would be required. The FWS has recognized this; from a 2015 proposed rule on regulating incidental take of migratory birds:

        “Oil, gas, and wastewater disposal pits can entrap birds that are attracted to a perceived source of water. Birds that land on or fall into the pit become covered with oil and may ultimately die from drowning, exhaustion, exposure, or effects of ingested oil. Closed containment systems or properly maintained netting prevents birds from entering these sites.
        Methane or other gas burner pipes at oil production sites and other locations provide a hazard to birds from burning, entrapment in pipes or vents, or direct mortality from flame flare. Removing perches, installing perch deterrents, and covering pipes and other small openings can minimize this take.”

        And there are effects on other species that require take permits under ESA. For example:
        “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to allow nine oil and gas companies to kill bats from five species, including endangered and threatened species, for 50 years in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.”

        Another example, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, effects on five listed species should require an incidental take permit (this NOI led to a court case that was decided against BLM based on NEPA issues):

        One of these species is steelhead, and there have also been numerous incidental take statements for effects on marine mammals issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service for oil and gas operations:

        If your point was that fossil fuels are less of a threat to wildlife, I don’t think so.

        • Nope. My point was if some are trying to increase protections on federal lands, and protect species, and we don’t want them “industrialized”… well, does this conflict with this push for solar and wind energy and powerline projects?

          Wind turbines seem to be more of a threat to flying organisms (birds bats and insects) than O&G operations are .. plus, like I said, they are forever. Which is not a reason not to have them, it’s just something that needs to be considered, addressed and mitigated. And perhaps some orgs need to change their rhetoric.


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