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BIG
SOLAR’S
FOOTPRINT
ON
PUBLIC
LANDS

[We
must
do]
everything
we
can
to
put
the
bulls‐eye
on
the
development
of
solar
energy
on
our
public
lands.
‐Interior
Secretary
Ken
Salazar1

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.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
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 2015.2
More recently, both the scope of proposed renewable energy development and the level of
financial and political commitment have 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






























































1
Galbraith, Kate. New measures to aid solar on public lands. New York Times “Green” blog, June 29, 2009.
2
Public Law 109-58. It should be noted that the Act did not mandate such development, but expressed the “sense of
Congress” that it “should” occur. This is notable because references to the Act’s 10,000 MW “mandate” are rife.
Solar
Done
Right

renewable sources by certain dates. California, for example, has a 20 percent RPS by the end of
2010 and 33 percent by the end of 2020.

Both the Administration and the Democrats in Congress favor programs to 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 have centralized
permitting and fast-tracked some solar projects.3 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.

This concept of distributing proceeds locally was also included in two subsequent bills sponsored
by Senator Harry Reid and Rep. Dean Heller of Nevada.4 In addition, one of the Reid-Heller bills
set a 60-day deadline for the issuance of leases within a pilot project area in one county in
Nevada.

No major legislation has yet been introduced in the 112th Congress pertaining to large-scale solar
development. Clearly, however, expediting solar development on public land is an easy call for
many policymakers. There is little hesitation to at least rhetorically 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.

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.





























































3

The main purpose of Feinstein’s bill, S. 2921, was to designate national monuments in areas of the California
desert where large private holdings had been acquired for the public through donation and privately-funded
purchase. Some solar applications have been submitted in these areas, and Feinstein sought to move those projects
outside the proposed national monuments, then expedite their processing as compensation for relocating them. The
latest version of the bill, introduced at the beginning of the 112th Congress, no longer includes the provisions that
would have expedited solar developments.
4
The American Solar Energy Pilot Leasing Act of 2010, HR 5508/ S. 3482 and the Clean Energy, Community
Investment, and Wildlife Conservation Act, HR 5735/ S. 3587.

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Public
Lands

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.

Current
Projects

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 5,000 acres, just shy of 8 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- to 50-year duration of “virtual privatization” (the average
lifetime of the projects), conversion to industrial use is probably permanent. The environmental
impacts are likely to be such that restoration to or recovery of previous ecological function
cannot occur. 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

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Solar
Done
Right

pipelines, transmission lines, or both) proposes 6,000 miles of corridor on federal lands, about
5,000 miles of them across BLM land.5

The states in which solar developers have applied or are expected to apply to use federal land are
California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

According to the information issued by the Interior Department in June 2009, there were about
225 applications on file for solar development on BLM land, of which 158 were active.6 As of
February 2011, a state-by-state review showed 62 active applications. (Inactive projects are
ones that, for example, are second-in-line for a site for which there is a prior applicant, or have
been down-listed by the BLM for an applicant’s failure to provide cost-sharing funds). The
numbers regularly change, as some applications are withdrawn, others may move to first-in-line,
and inactive projects may become active. In addition, the BLM is attempting to better determine
which projects comprise serious proposals, as opposed to the many speculative projects that filed
applications in an initial “land rush.”

In 2010, a total of 14 projects were on a “fast track,” as part of an Interior Department initiative
announced in 2009 that would expedite review and processing of projects it found had already
made substantial headway in the permitting process. Rather than the usual first-come, first-
served permitting approach, these projects were moved to the head of the line. Many proponents
were rushing to show progress that would qualify them for federal stimulus funding

By the end of that year, 9 fast-track projects had been approved. These decisions were signed by
the Secretary of the Interior, rather than at the State or Field Office level, eliminating the
administrative appeal process that would have normally applied, and making it so that any
challenges would have to be filed in the federal courts.






























































5
http://corridoreis.anl.gov/documents/docs/WWEC_FS_ROD.pdf
6

Bureau of Land Management news release, 6/29/09. Secretary Salazar, Senator Reid Announce ‘Fast- Track’
Initiatives for Solar Development on Western Lands.

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Public
Lands

As shown in the table below, active applications as of February 2011 cover more than 700,000
acres of public land.

PENDING PUBLIC LAND SOLAR FAST -TRACKS


APPLICATIONS

February 2011

STATE TOTAL TOTAL NUMBER/ACREAGE APPROVED


ACTIVE ACREAGE
APPLICATIONS

California 23 196,355 9 6

50,000 acres 21,324

Arizona 32 466,565 1

4,000 acres

Nevada 4 19.120 4 3

13,790 acres 8,538

New Mexico 3 35,575

Utah 0

Colorado 0

TOTAL 62 717,516 67,790 29, 862

The
Next
Leap:
Solar
Study
Areas
In announcing the Fast Track policies, Secretary Salazar stated in late 2009 that the Interior
Department had identified 23 million acres of public land with solar energy potential. 7

The next big step for solar development on public lands is planned to come out of the Solar
Study Areas initiative, another one of the components of Interior’s Fast-Track policy.






























































7
US Department of the Interior press release: Salazar Highlights Fast-Track Renewable Energy Projects, November
5, 2009.

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Solar
Done
Right

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. Leading up to the
issuance of the Draft PEIS, all accounts of its purpose indicated that the intent was to identify 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 mitigation requirements projects
must meet. The selection of lands to be carried forward as established Solar Energy Zones
(SEZs)—where solar applications would receive priority status over other uses— was 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.

Prior to the release of the draft EIS, maps of the Solar Study Areas (SSAs), potential SEZs, were
provided to the public, encompassing 24 land tracts in Arizona, California, Nevada, New
Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. The areas with the most land under consideration lie in the Mojave,
Colorado, and Sonoran deserts of California,
Arizona, and Nevada.

The original, mapped SSAs comprised a total


of 676,000 acres. It was anticipated that
through public input and further analysis, the
acreage under consideration would be
substantially reduced as environmental or
other conflicts were identified, and that the
overall goal was to steadily eliminate areas
and focus acutely on lands most suitable for
industrial-scale solar development.

Against all expectations, however, the Draft


PEIS, released in mid-December 2010,
identified a Preferred Alternative called the
Solar Energy Development Program
Alternative, keeping 21.5 million acres This aerial view of a solar power plant in California
shows the scale of these projects.
available for solar applications, coinciding
closely with the total amount of BLM land thought to have solar potential. The selection of this
alternative signaled that Interior was not willing to limit the amount of land under consideration,
and was accommodating the industry’s demands for this flexibility.

In their joint scoping letter for the draft PEIS, three industry groups—the Large-scale Solar
Association,, Solar Energy Industries Association, and Center for Energy Efficiency and
Renewable Technologies—had asked that much more land be added for consideration, and had
provided a list of specific areas and types of public land that should be available for right-of-way

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Public
Lands

applications. “It is critical that the 24 already-designated [Solar Energy Study Areas] do not
become a prescriptive constraint on utility-scale solar energy development,” the letter said.8

With the Preferred Alternative now encompassing 21.5 million acres, the SSAs became the Solar
Energy Zone Program Alternative, with 677,384 acres.

The choice of the multi-million-acre Preferred Alternative has caused considerable consternation
in the environmental community. For the most part, the national environmental organizations
support the concept, and most of the particulars, of the SEZ Program Alternative, and are
recommending that the BLM choose that alternative, with some changes. Others, however, are
calling for consideration of a much broader range of alternatives that would include prioritizing
distributed generation in the built environment (e.g. rooftop solar), and secondarily, projects sited
only on degraded or previously developed public land.

Ultimately, not all of the public lands being eyed for industrial solar development will be
exploited for this use. Yet, while driven by the real need to develop renewable energy,
policymakers are clearly 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.

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8

Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker LLP, Comments of LSA, SEIA, and CEERT on Solar Energy Study Areas
and Solar Energy Zones dated September 14, 2009.