Can Better Planning Limit the Damage?
By Lisa Belenky
On December 8, 2022, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced it is revising the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the BLM’s utility scale solar energy planning that was first adopted in 2012. (87 Fed. Reg. 75284) The BLM may expand the scope from six (6) to eleven (11) western states and expand the types of land considered for utility scale solar planning. Importantly, this process is intended not only to continue the pace of development we have seen in the recent past, but to “accelerate solar energy development on public lands in the west.” 1
The push for new planning is consistent with legislation passed in 2020 as part of the Appropriations package which set a minimum production goal of 25 gigawatts (GW) of solar, wind, and geothermal energy to be developed on public lands, with permitting to be completed by 2025. (43 U.S.C. § 3004[b])
Whether we like it or not, more big industrial solar projects are coming to public lands across the west. Many individuals and organizations focused on conservation will be participating in this process to try to steer projects away from the most sensitive resources.
Engaging in scoping on round 2 solar PEIS process
Good planning based on robust data and information can help steer large industrial solar facilities to the “least” damaging areas which could be designated as solar energy zones (SEZ) with incentives for development in those zones. Unfortunately, the BLM intends to continue its previous planning and again designate much larger areas as “variance areas” where development can also occur. There areas, by definition, include more sensitive ecological and cultural resources that the SEZs.
For the scoping period which just closed on March 1, BLM asked for input from the public on several overarching issues such as which states to include, whether to include areas within California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) in the new planning, how to address transmission proximity, and on more specific exclusion criteria. Conservation groups and others who worked closely on the DRECP are pressing BLM not to reopen that robust planning process. There are more than enough other areas of public lands that need updated planning efforts, and BLM should not reopen the DRECP planning.
In undertaking this planning, BLM intends to again rely on existing land use designations under existing plans and other available data to first exclude areas such as areas of critical environmental concern (ACECs), designated critical habitat for listed species, exclusions for certain types of sage grouse habitat, lands with wilderness characteristics, wild and scenic rivers, historic properties, etc. See
In 2012 the BLM exclusion criteria also included lands with over 5% slope and lands with lower solar energy potential – those two exclusions may be revised in this next round of planning. Including areas with lower solar energy potential also affects which states could be included in the planning.
From the areas that are not excluded, BLM then will then propose several SEZ in each state and the rest of the lands that are not excluded would be designated as variance lands.
SEZ are intended to be large enough for multiple projects of 20 MW or more (but could include smaller areas of public lands.) Lands “adjacent to private, State, or other Federal lands that are suitable for solar energy development may . . . . be appropriate for consideration as SEZs if they can be used in conjunction with adjacent areas.” If these areas of public lands are near load centers or have more degraded and fragmented habitats, it is possible that including these areas in SEZs could result in less new disturbance overall.
BLM also says it “will seek opportunities to locate new or expanded SEZs in degraded, disturbed, or previously disturbed areas” which would include brownfields, areas type converted by grading or repeated fire, and co-location of solar with wind or oil and gas development. This could also reduce the amount of new disturbance from large-scale solar.
2012 Solar PEIS – Lessons Learned, More Planning Is Better, Transmission Is Key
As we saw in the first round of this type of planning, some of the SEZs were developed quite quickly, particularly where there is available transmission, and other SEZs were all but ignored while further large-scale projects were built on variance lands. For details on the 2012 decision see <https://solareis.anl.gov/>.
What happened in Nevada is a good example of this phenomenon. The Dry Lake SEZ was quickly developed and even expanded, while other SEZs were ignored by industry – largely due to lack of available transmission. Because new transmission is very costly and can take up to a decade to permit and build, BLM will consider in this next round whether transmission is available when it evaluates new proposed SEZs.
Nevada also shows the risks of designating large areas as “variance areas” for solar development. Rather than go to one of the SEZs, industry set its sites on other areas for new large scale solar project applications, resulting in large projects in highly sensitive areas such as the Gemini and Yellow Pine projects with more proposals in the pipeline (Rough Hat, Golden Currant [like the berry], and Cooper Rays). Unfortunately, the variance areas allowed these projects to go forward outside of the zones, and they now sprawl across the landscape in Southern Nevada.
In contrast, in the California desert, additional planning was done as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which refined the SEZs into Development Focus Areas (DFA) and limited the “variance areas” where large-scale solar could be developed without a new plan amendment. That process, while far from perfect, took into account updated data sets, movement/migration corridors, and climate change impacts on existing habitats. As a result, all of the new large scale projects that have been developed in the DRECP area are confined to the SEZ/DFA areas with no projects approved on variance lands. (There were older projects that continued to move forward outside these areas but no new projects.) While these large-scale solar projects still have significant impacts to resources, they are being developed in concert with robust planning that involved conservation groups, industry, local counties, and many others in reaching a compromise that increased conservation in some areas to help off-set the impacts for large scale solar projects. While it is far from perfect, it is better than continuous sprawl fragmenting large intact areas of public lands.
Many conservationists do not agree with the BLM’s current path to increase utility scale solar development in remote public lands and oppose any new projects being developed on intact habitats. Smarter planning that could steer industrial scale project to utilizing public and private lands that have been previously disturbed/type-converted (such as degraded agricultural lands and mining sites and other brownfields) along with a robust program to increase community solar, parking lot coverage, storage, and microgrids would go a long way to meeting the needed demand. Nonetheless, to the extent that the new PEIS process can help steer large-scale projects away from the most sensitive areas including climate change refugia, engaging with this planning process is imperative.
As some of the leading scientists put it in a recent article about the conflict between conservation and renewable energy in the Mojave desert context of a changing climate: “Saving Joshua trees and other Mojave Desert species will require weighing the value of preserving specific sites against the larger benefits of renewable energy production and the reality that further development is inevitable. Balancing this trade-off necessitates identifying areas that have the highest conservation value and sadly agreeing to sacrifice populations where a focal species is doomed to extinction. Some new developments could occur in retired farmlands and industrial sites, but to the extent that new developments must be located in wild lands, these should be concentrated in areas already impacted by human disturbance or likely to be rendered unsuitable by climate change.”2
Lisa T. Belenky is a senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity, working out of the Oakland, California office. Her work focuses on the protection of rare and endangered species and their habitats under state and federal law on public and private lands. For more than a decade, Ms. Belenky has spent much of her time on legal and policy issues related to siting large-scale renewable energy projects on public and private lands.
2) Smith, C.I., Sweet, L.C., Yoder, J., McKain, M.R., Heyduk, K. and Barrows, C., 2023. Dust storms ahead: Climate change, green energy development and endangered species in the Mojave Desert. Biological Conservation, 277, p.109819. Available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632072200372X