December 12, 2011

Big Solar's Footprint on Public Lands

Posted In public lands issues | By Janine Blaeloch

[Updated 12/12/2011]

[We must do] everything we can to put the bulls-eye on the development of solar energy on our public lands.
– Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

The public lands that all American citizens hold in common are a unique manifestation of our history and values.  They also have historically been a battleground of the competing interests that lie along the spectrum between preservation and exploitation.

Ultimately, the concept of “multiple use” on public lands is well established and generally accepted to be the enduring policy. Public lands serve many, often incompatible needs and uses, including recreation, both mechanized and muscle-powered; wildlife habitat; mineral extraction; timber production; livestock grazing; watershed protection, and oil and gas development.  Indeed, the major mission of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees vast areas of land in the western U.S., is to oversee and issue permits, leases, and rights of way for commercial uses of public land. Controversies over BLM-managed public land largely revolve around the tension between the agency’s utilitarian and conservation missions.

In the past few years, the government has shown new interest in advancing “renewable,” non-fossil-fuel energy, through wind, solar, and geothermal generation.  A key aspect of the policy is the assumption that much of this will occur on federal public lands managed by the BLM.  The 2005 Energy Policy Act called for the development of technology to deliver an additional 10,000 MW of renewable energy from public lands by 2015.  In 2010 and 2011, both the scope of proposed renewable energy development and the level of financial and political commitment increased rapidly. Shortly before taking office, president-elect Obama called for a doubling of renewable energy production by 2012.

The rush for renewables is also driven from the state level, where states have established Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) dictating increasing percentages of power be derived from renewable sources by certain dates. California, for example, established a 20 percent RPS by the end of 2010 and 33 percent by the end of 2020.

Both the Administration and the majority in Congress favor programs that will streamline and ramp up solar development on public land. S. 1642, a bill introduced in 2009 by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) sought to speed the permitting process by centralizing permits in one office per state and establish a pilot program of renewable energy projects where competitive bidding would be used for applicants to obtain leases of public land.

In late 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced a bill that would also centralize permitting and fast track some solar projects. While aimed mostly at a specific area of the California Desert, Feinstein’s bill was the first to include provisions that would distribute some of the proceeds from solar project leases on public lands to the state and county where the project is located. The bill bogged down in controversy over the fast-track provisions and was introduced again in 2011 without those features.

In November 2011, Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) and co-sponsors introduced S. 1775, the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act,  aimed at greatly expanding such development by calling for swift completion of the BLM’s Solar Energy Zones Programmatic EIS (see below), and for a similarly broad-scale analysis of suitable sites for solar and wind development on National Forest land. The bill also establishes a solar and wind leasing pilot program to determine the efficacy of opening up to solar and wind leasing any public land not otherwise precluded from such use by land use planning or special designation.

Clearly, expediting solar development on public land is an easy call for policymakers. There is seemingly no hesitation to commit whole swaths of public land to this purpose.

It is not inconsistent with existing policies that large solar power-generating facilities should be proposed on public lands,  particularly since vast areas of open space— with high and largely uninterrupted daytime insolation (sunlight intensity and duration)—are in the desert Southwest, where public land ownership is very high. The states in which federal land is targeted are California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

When lawmakers and business interests turn to public lands for utilitarian purposes, however, the many non-utilitarian values of the land can be easily forgotten or discounted.  What was recognized yesterday as treasured open space may now be perceived simply as empty real estate. Too easily and too often, policy-makers turn to public land as a cash-cow, a warehouse, or a liquid asset. In lean times, proposals to sell off public land will always arise, and big schemes are proposed to make use of land that seems to be wasted if it is not “in use.”

With 253 million acres in BLM-managed lands alone, it may seem that the public lands, and their potential for use, are endless. Yet much of this area is already damaged or fragmented by mining, urban encroachment, oil and gas operations, livestock grazing, motorized recreation, and other uses. Large, contiguous areas that retain their ecological integrity are increasingly rare: these are some of the areas most acutely threatened by large-scale uses such as industrial solar.

Both the climate crisis and our acute need to find alternative energy sources are relatively new phenomena; the headlong rush to make use of every square inch of public land is not.  We must find a way to address the former without perpetuating the latter.

Big Solar’s Footprint

The scale, intensity, and duration of impacts introduced by industrial solar are massive. Solar plants are proposed to be sited on public land for which the developer rents a right-of-way. However, unlike the typical right-of-way issued by the BLM— where a buried pipeline or an above-ground transmission line has a limited footprint that does not preclude other uses—industrial solar plants comprise near-total coverage (and total land-use conversion) on the sites they occupy.

The average utility-scale solar plant will occupy an area in the range of 2,000 to 3,600 acres, or 3 to 5.5 square miles. Although leased rather than sold to the developer outright, the site will be utterly transformed, completely converted to its industrial use, will no longer serve non-industrial functions, and will be off-limits to the public. In essence, public land used for these plants is no longer public. 

Moreover, even beyond the 30- or more-year duration of “virtual privatization” (the average lifetime of the projects), conversion to industrial use is essentially permanent. The environmental impacts are likely to be such that restoration to or recovery of previous ecological function cannot occur. (Indeed, the BLM has stated that ecological recovery can be expected to take 3,000 years). The sites may be permanently relegated to industrial uses. Having been stripped of the special qualities and functions we value in public lands, they will in effect become private industrial land.

In addition to the rights-of-way for the plants themselves, many miles of transmission lines will be proposed to carry the energy. Because it is not known which solar projects will ultimately be approved and constructed, the transmission-line mileage cannot be quantified. However, a decision on federal plans for energy corridors to be designated in the 11 western states (for pipelines, transmission lines, or both) proposes 6,000 miles of corridor on federal lands, about 5,000 miles of them across BLM land. The BLM has anticipated that land disturbance for transmission and road construction associated with a typical solar development is “likely to be limited to [a] corridor of 25 mi (40 km) length or less.”

Fast Track Projects

The first wave of high-profile solar projects were part of a “fast-track” initiative the Interior Department had announced in 2009, which would give priority to projects that had already made substantial progress through permitting. Many developers were rushing to meet deadlines that would qualify them for grants and loan guarantees offered by the Department of Energy, including big funding opportunities put forward as part of the Recovery Act economic stimulus.

In 2010, nine fast-track solar projects on public land were approved, all of them signed by Secretary Salazar rather than at the usual Field Office level. Six projects approved in California covered 21,324 acres, and three projects in Nevada covered 8,538 acres. In 2011, one project in California has been approved and involves 4,165 acres. The total area covered by approved fast-track projects is 34,027 acres.

Pending Projects

According to the most recent data provided by the BLM, more than half a million acres of public land are already under lease application for solar projects. Two of the six states where development is planned to occur, Utah and Colorado, do not yet have any pending projects.

Current Public Land Solar Applications December 2011
State Number of Applications Approximate Acreage
Arizona 31 411,932
California 20 129,092
New Mexico332,616
Nevada 25 111,397
Total 79 685,037

The Solar PEIS and Supplement

The biggest policy initiative for solar development on public lands is embodied in the Solar Study Areas initiative, another one of the components of Interior’s aforementioned Fast-Track policy, and the associated programmatic planning effort.

Separate from the active projects described above, the BLM Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) is a special planning-level project conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that is looking at areas of BLM land with high solar potential and characteristics conducive to utility-scale solar plant development.  The PEIS is intended to result in the identification of the best areas for “solar energy zones” to be established, to analyze the potential environmental impacts of large-scale solar projects, and to propose standard litigation requirements projects must meet.  The selection of lands to be carried forward as established Solar Energy Zones (where solar applications would receive priority status over other uses) is supposed to ensure the exclusion of lands with environmental or other conflicts, such as endangered species habitat, visually sensitive areas, wildlife corridors, cultural sites, etc.

The Solar Study Areas (SSAs) as first conceived encompassed 24 land tracts in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. The areas with the most land under consideration lay in the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran deserts of California, Arizona, and Nevada.

The original SSAs contained a total of 676,000 acres, with more than half of the acreage in California, and 30% of the overall total concentrated in the Riverside East study area, which extends east from Joshua Tree National Park to the Colorado River. 

Late in 2010, as the release of the draft PEIS it was widely assumed, and regularly reinforced through statements from Interior, that the PEIS would begin with the 676,000 acres of SSAs and work from there to narrow appropriate lands for solar development, in the six states. Thus, the public was unprepared for the choice of a Preferred Alternative that would keep 22 million acres of public land – about 33 times as much acreage as the SSAs – open to lease applications.

The PEIS generated some 80,000 comments. In July 2011, Salazar announced approval of two solar, one wind power, and one transmission project and simultaneously announced that the BLM and DOE would be issuing a supplement to the draft PEIS that would address “key issues” brought forward in response to the draft and provide “enhancements” to the proposal.

In October 2011, the supplement was released, now with a preferred alternative that includes 285,000 acres in 17 Solar Energy Zones (most of the former SSAs) and an additional 20 million acres available under a variance process that would allow “well-sited” projects. 


Despite the considerable hoopla with which the new preferred alternative was announced, it only underscores Interior’s refusal to significantly limit the amount of public land made available for Big Solar.

Ultimately, not all of the public lands being eyed for solar development will be exploited for this use. Yet, driven by the real need to develop renewable energy, policymakers are clearing not giving adequate consideration to the consequences of turning public lands into an energy factory. It is essential that we not lose sight of the environmental impact and virtual privatization of public lands that could result from a heedless pursuit of remote, industrial-scale solar development.