Public Lands in the US Have Long Been Disposed to Fossil Fuel Companies. Now, the Lands Are Being Offered to Solar Companies

GILBERT, Ariz.—Standing in front of a small crowd at a library in this suburb of Phoenix last month, officials from the Bureau of Land Management outlined a plan that could reshape the development of solar energy projects throughout the Western United States in the coming years as the nation transitions to more renewable energy sources. 

In 2012, the BLM, which manages 245 million acres of land as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, implemented the Western Solar Plan, allowing utility-scale solar energy projects to be built on large swaths of public land throughout the Southwest. The agency has now been tasked by the Interior Department with reviewing the plan, “which will help accelerate and continue momentum for the clean energy economy.”

“This is a tremendous opportunity to advance our national renewable energy goals,” Derek Eysenbach, an Arizona BLM project manager, said of the plan at the public meeting, which could add five states to the Western Solar Plan and reevaluate the amount of land available for utility-scale solar energy development. 

But two considerations stand in the way: The question of what the country’s public lands are for and if they are the best places to put utility-scale solar projects. 

The issues aren’t new. For decades, conservationists have fought to save public lands from development and industries that threaten habitats untouched by humans. Editors at the New York Times in 2010 called the debate between preserving public lands and creating more renewable energy sources a “green civil war.” As the nation begins to accelerate its transition away from the fossil fuels responsible for climate change—which threatens the health of humans, the livability of communities and landscapes across the world—public lands are once again being offered up to energy companies. 

As an agency, BLM isn’t just responsible for helping foster the nation’s energy transition or allowing private companies to use the lands for commercial gain. It’s also tasked with preserving public lands for natural, cultural or historical reasons.

Crucial to the development of solar projects, conservationists and public land experts said, is making sure that if they must be on public lands, they are done in the areas where they will do the least harm to habitats and species, which means working with local stakeholders on alternative plans that avoid the worst impacts to nearby environments.

“One of the most challenging issues that those of us in some form of conservation are facing is that we are finding ourselves often on the opposite side of these battles about (renewable) energy projects,” said David Robinson, the director of conservation advocacy at the Tucson Audubon Society.

The Tucson Audubon Society, he said, won’t take an absolutist position on any project and recognizes that hard choices will have to be made when it comes to protecting the environment and growing the amount of clean energy the nation generates, including with solar projects on public lands. That means project developers, the BLM, conservation groups, tribes and others will have to find compromises.

“What delays these projects is when the companies behind them do not engage and the agencies who will be responsible for reviewing them and approving them, don’t engage the full range of stakeholders right from the start,” Robinson said.

Dustin Mulvaney, a professor in environmental studies at San Jose State University whose research focuses on sustainable and just transitions to solar power, agreed. 

What stands in the way of projects getting permitted isn’t environmental reviews that each project must go through, but an unwillingness to find alternatives different parties can agree on.

But more participation from the public won’t fully solve the issue, he said. 

“At a very basic level, it’s just the development of relatively intact or ecologically valuable lands in a landscape that has some pretty degraded lands already” that could be developed to allow preservation of the more pristine tracts, Mulvaney said. “That’s just something that seems somewhat intractable and unresolvable.”

Maintaining Momentum 

Notable things have changed since the Western Solar Plan was implemented in 2012. 

Solar technology has improved, its costs have gone down and the federal government is pushing to expand clean energy development across the country to address climate change, leading to almost exponential increases in the development of solar energy projects. In December, the Interior Department announced the BLM review of the Western Solar Plan, “which will help accelerate and continue momentum for the clean energy economy.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to manage the nation’s public lands responsibly and with an eye toward the increasing impacts of the climate crisis,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis said in the press release. “The power and potential of the clean energy future is an undeniable and critical part of that work.”

The initial 2012 plan included six Southwestern states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah—and created three designations for the lands: 285,000 acres of “solar energy zones” where development of the resource is prioritized; 19.3 million acres of land that the BLM will consider for solar projects if developers apply to build projects on them; and 78.6 million acres completely excluded from solar development. 

In the decade since the plan was implemented, the BLM has approved permits for 41 projects across 75,000 acres that, as of December 2022, can produce 9,272 megawatts of power, according to data from the agency. 

The BLM is now considering expanding the solar plan to include Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and Wyoming, reevaluating the land designations established in 2012 that could potentially expand the number of acres available in the states that are already part of it, changing how many megawatts projects need to produce to qualify for inclusion and finding ways to further incentivize development in priority areas. 

Jordan Macknick, the lead energy-water-land analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, said creating a uniform approach to developing solar across public lands in the West will be hard given how different the landscapes are across the region.

And regardless of how much the process is standardized, developing renewable energy projects on public lands will take time. Public meetings like the one in Gilbert are just the beginning of the procedures that develop environmental impact statements for projects and get feedback from the public.

Mulvaney, the environmental studies professor, said that “the historic use of public lands by energy industries” has led clean energy companies to say “It’s our turn now.”

To understand the conflict these projects can create, he said, you have to understand the history of the BLM, which is largely one of allowing the use of public lands by cattle ranchers, hard rock miners, and oil, gas and coal companies.

‘The Ultimate Muddled Agency’

It wasn’t until the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 that the agency also began considering multiple uses for public lands, including retaining them for conservation, cultural and recreational purposes rather than just opening them to grazing and mining, said Ken Rait, the U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation project director at Pew Charitable Trusts. That mindset didn’t take root at BLM until the 1990s, and was largely undone by the Trump administration years later, Rait said. 

“For decades, the Bureau of Land Management was largely a land disposal agency, and an agency that managed the public domain for the benefit of the livestock and the mining industry essentially,” he said. “There was no consideration of conservation values whatsoever.”

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The BLM still largely works to the benefit of the livestock and oil and gas industries; the Center for Biological Diversity found that the Biden administration is outpacing the Trump administration in approving drilling permits for oil and gas companies in their first two years of office. Nonetheless, the FLPMA helped change who gets to benefit from public lands and determine the best use of the millions of largely undisturbed acres. 

Crucial to understanding the BLM, Mulvaney said, is that it is a federal agency without a central mission guiding its choices. The BLM’s tasks include conserving lands with natural or cultural significance, providing pastures for grazing, opening areas with valuable underground resources to mining, supporting recreational activities and now, developing plans for solar energy projects. “They’re the ultimate muddled agency because of all the different forces pulling it in different directions,” Mulvaney said. 

Siting Projects Where There’s the Least Conflict

Solutions to conflicts over plans proposed for public lands are always nuanced, Rait said, and never make everyone happy.

Public lands, however, aren’t the only places solar projects can be developed. As opposed to grazing or mining, solar energy installations can go up in urban areas. They can be placed over parking lots, on the roofs of warehouses or on farms. “It’s important not to view public lands as the only place where these kinds of things can and should occur,” Rait said.

The solar energy zones designated by the BLM’s Western Solar Plan are intended to cause the least amount of conflict around the development of public lands, Mulvaney said, “but the least conflict lands, in general, are not on public lands at all.”

In a 2019 paper Mulvaney co-authored looking at the economic benefit of siting solar projects in California areas where they would have the least impact on other values found that development on private lands, typically on former farmland in the San Joaquin Valley close to already established energy transmission lines, were the quickest to get permitted and cost the least to get done.

“A farmer is not going to sue another farmer to not have a project built,” Mulvaney said, but on public lands, the possibility is much higher that litigation and other actions could delay a project and increase its costs.

Macknick, the NREL analyst, said from the perspective of the solar industry, the best lands are ones that are large, flat, close to transmission lines and roads and have few landowners in the area. Put those criteria together, he said, and “it sounds like current agricultural farms.”

Public lands, he added, also have a lot of the same characteristics.

BLM of course has no say on what happens on private lands, but even then, Mulvaney said, the agency’s insistence that large amounts of public lands be used for solar projects is based on antiquated thinking. 

Early applications for permits to develop solar projects sent to BLM were based on concentrated solar power systems, as opposed to the photovoltaic solar panels that are common from residential roofs to farm fields. Concentrated solar power systems, which require more land and aren’t usable in a more urban environment, remain rare. 

Public lands will likely remain a key piece in generating more solar energy for the U.S.

The Solar Futures Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy and NREL found that, at its current rate of growth, solar energy generation in the U.S. would go from 80 gigawatts to 380 gigawatts by 2035. That would require a total of more than over 4 million acres of land. 

There isn’t enough land in urban areas to keep up with the demand for utility-scale solar projects, Macknick said, and it is also much more expensive than more remote terrain. Plus, he said, building projects on huge plots of land, whether they be public or private, is cheaper and easier to accomplish.

Though solar energy is not as harmful to the overall environment as fossil fuels, they still can have a significant impact on local habitats, conservationists said. 

The projects can fragment habitats for wildlife. They sometimes involve bulldozing land and expanses of blue photovoltaic panels can be mistaken by birds for bodies of water, leading them to attempt to land on them. Birds confused by this lake effect can die on impact or when they are unable to get airborne again.

Macknick agreed that utility-scale solar projects can fragment habitats, especially for larger wildlife, but the practices with the greatest impact, such as razing the land, are no longer used. When built right, large solar developments can minimize impacts on the local environment, he said, by making sure not to compact the soil and ensuring vegetation can grow underneath. 

Going forward, he said, it’ll be key to find “dual-use solutions,” where solar projects can be sited and allow for grazing or farming operations to continue underneath. Communication will be key in making sure the benefits of a project are clearly presented, he said.

‘Sacrifice Zones’

Ilene Anderson first became concerned about solar development on public lands around 2009.

California had in recent years implemented its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires electric companies “to increase the amount of renewable energy they procure until 50 percent of their retail sales are from eligible renewable energy resources” by the end of 2030.

And under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed by the Obama administration, the federal government provided tens of billions of dollars to clean energy development in the country.

“That really set off a rush of speculators in California” with applications for solar projects proposed across millions of acres of land in the state, said Anderson, a senior scientist and public lands desert director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But early projects quickly ran into roadblocks: environmental screenings. Developers were looking at how close the locations were to transmission lines and ample access to sunlight. “They didn’t do a very good screen for issues that would cost them time and money” in the form of environmental concerns, Anderson said. 

The developers, however, quickly learned from their mistakes, she said, and “got with the program.” This resulted in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, she said, which streamlined 10.8 million acres of public lands in California for renewable energy development while conserving unique ecosystems.

“We came out with a plan that was not perfect, no one was happy with it, but nobody’s litigating it either,” she said. “That was a sign that you know, everybody can be uncomfortably OK with the process.”

Anderson said the Center’s position is to create “sacrifice zones”: place as many of the solar projects as close together near transmission lines as possible to avoid further habitat damage and fragmentation across the region.

Most parties now realize that there will have to be painful tradeoffs.

“If we lose the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, but we save the coral reefs, I’ll be able to sleep at night,” said Robinson. 

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