Industrialization of Federal Lands Underway: But It’s OK. Biden Admin Pushing Utility-Scale Solar Development

AP story Matthew Brown in the Associated Press, here’s a version via NBC News.

But without the climate bill, tax incentives to build large-scale solar will drop to 10 percent of a developer’s total capital costs by 2024, instead of rising to 30 percent, said Xiaojing Sun, head solar researcher at industry consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Incentives for residential-scale solar would go away completely by 2024, she said.

“It will significantly slow down the growth of solar,” Sun said.

Many people wonder how solar can be cheapest and also require subsidies.  But the answer to “without BBB” might be to pass a specific and targeted “renewable energy” bill.  It also makes a person wonder things like “what is fair market value for federal land leases of a more or less permanent nature?” and “should biomass from fuel treatments have equivalent tax treatment?”

However, she added that streamlining access to federal land could help the industry, as large solar farms on non-federal lands face growing local opposition and cumbersome zoning laws.

And we all know that there are no problems with local opposition and cumbersome regulations on federal lands, so this should be easy.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in Western states. Agency director Tracy-Stone Manning said boosting renewable energy is now one of its top priorities.

Forty large-scale solar proposals in the West are under consideration, she said.

The agency in early December issued a draft plan to reduce rents and other fees paid by companies authorized to build wind and solar projects on public lands. Officials were unable to provide an estimate of how much money that could save developers.

In Nevada, where the federal government owns and manages more than 80% of the state’s land, large-scale solar projects have faced opposition from environmentalists concerned about harm to plants and animals in the sun- and windswept deserts.

Developers abandoned plans for what would have been the country’s largest solar panel installation earlier this year north of Las Vegas amid concerns from local residents. Environmentalists are fighting another solar project near the Nevada-California border that they claim could harm birds and desert tortoises.

Stone-Manning said solar projects on public lands are being sited to take environmental concerns into account.

The solar development zones were first proposed under the Obama administration, which in 2012 adopted plans to bring utility-scale solar energy projects to public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Officials have identified almost 1,400 square miles (3,500 square kilometers) of public land for potential leasing for solar power.

Here’s the link to the 2012 Solar PEIS if you want to see maps to all the states. Also, for Coloradans, here’s the comments for the 2011 meeting in Alamosa. It will be interesting to watch how this programmatic is used in site-specific approvals. Also, not sure why only the southwest was analyzed, the reasoning is probably buried in here somewhere. A quick look at the map and the county poverty maps in Colorado suggest that environmental justice concerns might come into play.. unless solar doesn’t evoke those concerns.

I think it would be interesting to get a map of full-scale solar and wind build out on federal, state and private lands before people got too involved in Wilderness-y designations for Biden Admin priority 30 x 30.

“We fully intend to meet our clean energy goals,” Haaland said. She said the Trump administration stalled clean energy by shuttering renewable energy offices at the Bureau of Land Management and undermining long-term agreements, such as a conservation plan tied to solar development in the California desert.

“We are rebuilding that capacity,” Haaland said.

At the same time, environmental groups were criticizing the Trump Admin for approving “the nation’s largest solar project” in 2020. So there must have been some capacity? Puzzling.

Retiree network scuttlebutt says there is indeed a great deal of pressure to get out these decisions at BLM, including some push to downplay environmental concerns. Should be interesting to watch how this goes, plus any “streamlining access” efforts.

5 thoughts on “Industrialization of Federal Lands Underway: But It’s OK. Biden Admin Pushing Utility-Scale Solar Development”

  1. Has anyone done an analysis on how many acres of BLM lands in the southwest are actually suitable for solar development and aren’t already classified with a conflicting designation such as WSAs, lands with wilderness characteristics, ACECs, critical habitat, high visual resource integrity, no surface occupancy, etc. or aren’t included in some Congressman’s pet wilderness bill or a national monument proposal? I assume they’d want to avoid popular recreation areas well. How many areas are realistically left?

    • Patrick, I think that’s what the BLM Solar PEIS did in 2012. Some things have changed since 2012, and one of them is the idea that poorer areas shouldn’t bear the brunt of society’s industrial needs. And for Colorado, those are areas with historic minority populations. But what if some of those populations want it, and some don’t? Some people might want the jobs and others don’t want the impacts.. and what do the Utes think?

      I think that this (massive renewable buildout) could all happen quickly or with meaningful public involvement but not both.

  2. To understand whether “industrialization” is an apt characterization, it would be helpful to compare these maps to those showing “fossil fuel energy zones” and “hardrock mining zones” and the corresponding exclusion areas for both. I would speculate there would be a lot of blue dots already everywhere and few to none exclusion zones (outside of whatever the yellow areas are).

    • No, my characterization is simpler than that. Landscapes with solar and wind farms are industrialized landscapes as are landscapes with oil and gas. Solar and wind turbine installations occur in large chunks, while some o&g wells are scattered around. At least coal mining can be above or below ground. I’m not saying any are better than the other- the problem is that renewables and mining for needed minerals also looks industrial, and corporations make money from them, and they all have environmental impacts.

      Two other comparisons… to get the amount required of renewables will take a great deal more land to be industrialized. And to keep it going it lasts forever, not like o&g that go for thirty years or so and then get remediated (or should).

      Because I am not a fan of that kind of development, I would tend to want to decarbonize by locating small nuclear where there are already coal plants, thereby obviating the need for developing large areas and powerlines. And all that NEPA….and consultations… and lawsuits…

      • On private land, even better than small (theoretical?) nuclear power plants on old power plant sites could be colocating energy and agricultural uses, or distributed solar and wind energy near the developments that would use it. On federal land, I think I agree that locating a large permanent (emphasizing that word) industrial facility that is not compatible with multiple use (a consideration that I assume would go into designating such areas) seems a bit beyond current private uses of public land, and it might be appropriate to discuss outright divesting of such lands (gasp) as part of such a decision.


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