Energy News I: Western Solar Plan Public Meetings: First Virtual Session Tomorrow February 5, 2024

Once again, I’m grateful for reporting by Sammy Roth of the LA Times.  Interesting that for this particular piece, he’s a columnist not a reporter.  I hope you can read the whole thing.  It’s interesting that Sammy says “the western solar plan sounds scary. But it’s better than climate change.” In my view, there are a variety of other decarbonization options.  Are renewables the only answer? No. Are renewables on federal lands the only way to get renewables? No. Could anthropogenic climate change occur even if the US were net-zero? Yes.

Members of the public can still weigh in. Before finalizing the Western Solar Plan, the Bureau of Land Management will host eight public meetings to gather input, including two Zoom meetings, the first of them this Monday at 10 a.m. PT.

Federal officials are also finalizing a regulation that would dramatically reduce the fees paid by renewable energy companies with projects on public lands. Another regulation nearing completion would put ecosystem protection on an equal footing with energy development — one more effort to strike the right balance between clean power and conservation on federal lands.


The Biden administration released its long-awaited Western Solar Plan last month, laying out a vision for where sprawling solar farms should be allowed — and where they should be blocked — across 11 Western states, including California. The plan covers 162 million acres overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and tentatively concludes that companies should be able to propose solar projects across 22 million acres — an area roughly the size of Maine.


Note: that’s only solar, not solar plus wind.

Weiner also described the federal government’s maps as “grainy,” saying they offer “more of a 30,000-foot view than a ground-level view” of which public lands are suitable for solar. It will be up to developers to study specific sites themselves.

Federal officials “don’t have the resources to do that level of planning,” Weiner told me.

I was intrigued to hear a similar observation from one of the most vocal critics of solar on Western public lands.

That would be Patrick Donnelly, who lives near Death Valley National Park and is Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. He told me his biggest problem with Biden’s plan is that it’s a “desktop exercise” that uses “a pretty arbitrary set of criteria” to determine which lands should be closed off to solar. Federal officials, he said, failed to take advantage of “on-the-ground knowledge” to more precisely map out appropriate development zones and protected areas.


The federal government’s criteria for deciding which areas should be off limits to solar — including endangered species habitat, popular hiking spots and places sacred to Indigenous tribes — “didn’t flag areas that should be obvious,” Donnelly said.

As I talked with Donnelly, Weiner and others, I kept thinking back to something that Tracy Stone-Manning, the Bureau of Land Management’s director, told me when I interviewed her at an environmental journalism conference in April.

To speed up solar and wind development on public lands, she said, her agency needs a lot more money from Congress to hire additional staff members, who can more thoroughly map out the best spots and conduct environmental analyses.

“The biggest problem is having enough people to do the work,” Stone-Manning said.

At the time, that sounded to me like a bit of an excuse. Now I find myself nodding along.

As long as Republicans retain at least partial control of Congress — they currently run the House — more money for clean energy isn’t likely. It almost certainly won’t happen if Donald Trump returns to the White House. Elections have consequences.

What I thought was interesting about this is the idea that more staff can “thoroughly map out the best spots”.  If that were the case, then, wouldn’t it be letting leases and companies bidding on them rather than developers picking sites? I’m not sure how that currently works.  It could be like an oil and gas leasing decision, then someone leases it, then an APD-equivalent kind of analysis for the specific site.  But then that might be three levels of NEPA, this programmatic, a “leasing decision-like” level and an “APD-like” level.

I also wonder about what Stone-Manning says about “enough people”.. if the FS can have contractors do NEPA work funded by proponents (with ultimate authority and review by Feds) why not the BLM?  Maybe someone understands these legal underpinnings.

Also it almost sounds like Sammy is saying “vote for R’s if you want pristine federal landscapes..”

The Bureau of Land Management estimates that over the next 20 years, solar projects will be built across nearly 1 million acres under its jurisdiction in the West — the 700,000 acres I mentioned above, plus an additional 280,000 already open to solar developers in the California desert under an Obama-era federal plan. That’s three times as many acres as the agency estimates will need to be dedicated to solar on all other lands, public or private, in the 11 Western states included in the new plan.

Does that make sense? Should public lands be responsible for hosting three-quarters of the West’s solar farms?

As a lover of those gorgeous landscapes — some of my most cherished memories include backpacking Wyoming’s Teton Crest Trail and camping in Death Valley — my gut reaction is, “No.” Even the federal officials behind the Western Solar Plan seemed to agree, writing that the amount of public land they assumed would be needed for solar was “likely an overestimate.”

For some conservationists, those questionable numbers are one of several reasons the idea of opening 22 million acres of public lands to possible solar development “doesn’t really pass the laugh test,” in the words of Matt Kirby, senior director of energy and landscape conservation at the National Parks Conservation Assn., an advocacy group.

“Why open up all that land and let industry choose?” he asked.

Kirby would prefer to see the Biden administration ditch its current “preferred alternative” — the one with the 22 million acres — and instead select Alternative 5, which would limit solar applications to 8 million acres of previously disturbed lands.

“We’re now in a situation that essentially puts industry in the driver’s seat,” Kirby said.

Members of the public can still weigh in. Before finalizing the Western Solar Plan, the Bureau of Land Management will host eight public meetings to gather nput, including two Zoom meetings, the first of them this Monday at 10 a.m. PT.

I also thought that it was interesting that John Podesta is the “senior advisor to the President for clean energy innovation and implementation.”  It seems like more and more, effort which have a substantial technical component are led by people with no technical background.  This seems to me as if it could be a problem, since there are many pathways to decarbonization, and choosing among them would tend to have a technical element.  I’d be for an open discussion and analysis of all alternatives, including costs, social and environmental impacts, technical feasibility, availability of needed material, national security and domestic job implications, and including the fact that different technological horses in the race will have unknown success (uncertainties and scenarios).  It’s kind of funny that none of this is done, and yet all the analysis is done by someone at a BLM Field Office on a particular piece of ground.

For the record, I don’t think it’s pay-offs to CAP by solar and wind purveyors.. or that nuclear hasn’t paid enough into D coffers.  I think some super-important people have “all renewables” as an ideological bent, no matter what the outcome and to whom.  And I think that the lack of rationality makes people suspicious, which makes them suspicious of “the climate change issue.”

Anyway, back to Sammy.


wrote in the fall about “Uncommon Dialogue,” a Stanford University initiative that produced a first-of-its-kind agreement in which a dozen prominent developers and environmental groups pledged to work together to limit ecosystem damage from solar farms. Their dialogue continues, with six working groups crafting development guidelines and policy recommendations.

One of their goals is to come up with incentive programs that encourage companies to build fewer solar farms on pristine public lands and more on already disturbed areas such as Superfund sites, landfills, former mines and water reservoirs — places where it’s typically more expensive to build. The “Uncommon Dialogue” partners also hope to promote solar development on farmland, which helps save water in drought-stressed regions but can provoke opposition from neighboring farmers.

Dan Reicher, the Stanford University researcher and former Clinton administration official who launched and leads the initiative, told me he expects most solar projects in the United States to be built on private lands, rather than public lands.

“The vast proportion is going to be on private agricultural lands,” he predicted.

President Biden’s solar plan forecasts a different outcome, at least for the American West.

5 thoughts on “Energy News I: Western Solar Plan Public Meetings: First Virtual Session Tomorrow February 5, 2024”

  1. Placing solar panels on homes over parking lots and warehouses would have no negative environmental impacts and lessen the need for transmission and distribution grids. Industrial scale solar benefits private utility companies not the public and there are many proven applications of distributed energy that offer advantages over millions of acres of solar in arid areas requiring large quantities of water for maintenance. Bigger is not always better even with economies of scale arguments by industry economists. Placing solar on most flat roofed warehouses, grocery stores, malls offer a more practical solution.

    • Alan, Sammy came to the conclusion that industrial scale is necessary (assuming all renewables). I’ll try to find that piece and post it.

  2. Xcel Energy is just one utility being bankrupted by insurance companies looking for culprits in human-caused disasters now that it’s been determined all-day hurricane force winds drove the 2021 Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado. Wind gusts of 128 miles per hour sent two converging wildfires into housing developments killing two people, taking out nearly 1100 homes and numerous businesses including a Target store in Superior.

    Here in Santa Fe County residents are balking at a solar farm on private property in Rancho Viejo that could provide power for some 30,000 homes arguing that lithium ion batteries are prone to thermal runaway fires, that construction would disturb habitat for burrowing owls and require nearly 50 million gallons of water.

    In my home state of South Dakota, Walworth County residents are voicing similar concerns but McCook County officials have approved a permit for a large array on 735 acres capable of producing some 99 megawatts despite opponents’ claims for life safety concerns, damage to property and land value reductions but according to an industry watchdog South Dakota ranks last in solar capacity.

    Plans for a 771 mW photovoltaic farm that could electrify every domicile in Wyoming are being hardened for a site near the state’s border with Colorado.

    Developers are nearing completion of a 400 megawatt solar system with battery storage in Sandoval County, New Mexico and capable of powering up to 150,000 PNM subscribers is scheduled to come online in June. Glare from the modules is quite visible from La Bajada Hill on I-25 nearly fifty miles distant.

    Subsidized corporate greenwashing for a CO2 pipeline through private property is ripping the South Dakota Republican Party apart but the BLM taking public lands to enrich the shareholders of private utilities is every bit as offensive.

    In the Northwest the US Bureau of Land Management is seeking comment on the construction of utility-scale photovoltaic generation on public lands in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

    Ice storms and other calamities driven by anthropogenic climate hijinx routinely knock out electric power often resulting in lost lives and the inevitable cyber attacks on the US will take down the grid for days, even months causing food shortages and mayhem but the addition of virtual power plants or VPPs can change that handling some twenty percent of peak power demand by 2030.

    Here in New Mexico the Kewa Pueblo is expanding a broadband network built in 2015 and assembling a photovoltaic microgrid. In my home state of South Dakota the Flandreau Santee Sioux Nation built a microgrid, so have the Oglala Lakota Nation and Standing Rock Sioux where wind chills and blowing snow are putting thousands at risk. Many other nations are also building microgrids.

    So, microgrid technologies are destined to enhance tribal sovereignty, free communities from electric monopolies and net-metering only gives control back to utilities enabled by moral hazard. But, Colorado residents have had it with the monopoly that furnishes the city’s power and burns fossil fuels to generate 58% of the state’s electricity. In Colorado regulators are sending a clear signal to Xcel and Black Hills Energy to help subscribers transition to rooftop solar especially when microgrids are far more acceptable to rural communities.

    Our 4000W system here at headquarters powers two houses and the 2000W system powers the casita at our Airbnb. The average cost of a household photovoltaic system has dropped below $3/watt or around $12,810 before tax credits are factored in. Leaving the grid has never been easier so anyone who can afford to it should do it now and with Trump still in the running for the White House it’s never been more urgent.

  3. Didn’t we just listen to the FS and other fed agencies say they needed more funding for staff? And didn’t we just see that presented to them in the form of the Inflation Reduction and other acts? Everything I hear says that the Feds came up short of hiring goals even with the new funds. The issue isn’t finding, it’s that agencies like the Forest Service and BLM aren’t presenting an appealing work environment or pay for young professionals.


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