Guiding clean energy development to smart places
The sunny lands of the southwest are the perfect place for capturing the energy of the sun. But solar energy development could hurt the beautiful cactus-studded deserts that wildlife depends on. Wind energy development on our public lands continues to grow at a rapid pace with projects being approved by the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming, but like solar, wind projects can have serious impacts on the land.
Rooftop solar development can help reduce the demand for development on public lands. Recycling contaminated lands already disturbed by human use—like brownfields—can also make some of the best sites for renewable energy development. These degraded lands have low ecological value and are usually wired for electrical transmission.
It is important that clean energy projects be built in the right places and in the right ways to protect our natural heritage and wildlife while ensuring a clean energy future. This can be done in a number of ways.
Solar development on public lands offers many benefits, from reducing the threat of climate change to creating green jobs. Large-scale projects also have serious impacts on the land, so it is important that they be built in the right places and the right ways. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has designated Solar Energy Zones on public lands through its Western Solar Plan in an effort to better identify solar resources with fewer wildlands and wildlife conflict.
By focusing development in low-conflict zones, we can:
- Protect wildlands and sensitive wildlife habitat.
- Facilitate responsible development by using taking advantage of nearby existing roads and power lines—This makes development faster, cheaper and better for the environment, solar developers and consumers.
- Help plan for the future—Solar Energy Zones can help plan for new power lines needed to connect solar projects to cities where people and businesses will use the power.
Tools in the Western Solar Plan provide for responsible solar development and can help guide projects to low-conflict Solar Energy Zones by:
- Incentivizing development within the zones.
- Helping develop plans to off-set impacts from development in zones through nearby land protection or wildlife habitat restoration Identifying new potential zones so the solar program has room to grow responsibly.
- Ensuring that development outside of the zones is the exception, not the rule, and only occurs in acceptable places.
Photo by Daniel Hoherd, flickr.
In 2014 the BLM launched an effort to map wind energy resource potential on public lands in the West. When completed, this mapping tool will inform where wind projects are and are not built. Wind projects should be guided to the most appropriate places by:
- Siting wind facilities on brownfields (abandoned or underused industrial land) or other previously disturbed lands.
- Excluding wind development from sensitive areas
- Incentivizing development in areas that are pre-screened and found to have minimal environmental conflicts
- Siting associated transmission lines in low-conflict areas
- Offsetting unavoidable impacts from development or “mitigating” by protecting or restoring other lands and wildlife habitat
Photo by Mason Cummings.
Protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat means ensuring responsible power transmission development that supports renewable energy. New power lines to transport renewable energy will be needed to replace polluting energy sources. By engaging early in the planning process, we can ensure that needed lines are built in low impact places.
While some potential areas for renewable energy development are near existing transmission lines, many of these areas, particularly on public lands, are not. Reducing transmission impacts It is important that plans for our country’s energy transmission needs strike a balance with the protection of wildlife, air and water quality as well as natural and cultural resources that keep American communities healthy, safe and prosperous.
Engaging planners, utilities, conservationists and other stakeholders early in the process of planning for new transmission is critical to achieve energy transmission solutions that protect wildlife and wild places. The Bureau of Land Management's work to improve corridors for transmission lines and pipelines across the West will consider both clean energy resources and places that should be protected from development.
Clean energy and conservation funding
All forms of energy development, including wind and solar, can leave a lasting mark on our public lands and wildlife. The scars left behind by energy development can be countered through 21st century conservation efforts and by finding appropriate locations, using smart construction and operations practices and countering unavoidable impacts with new protections for nearby lands. When impacts do occur, there are a number of tools that can be adopted to pay back our public lands.
Public Lands and Renewable Energy Development Act
This important piece of legislation will direct vital investments in local communities and natural resource conservation and make a bold commitment to future generations.
The Public Lands and Renewable Energy Development Act would:
- Balance the impacts of wind and solar energy projects on public lands by ensuring a portion of revenue generated is reinvested in conservation efforts in local communities.
- Improve the permitting process by directing funds to the Bureau of Land Management to help reduce the backlog of project applications and focus development in areas where projects are most likely to succeed.
- Protect wildlands and wildlife habitat by focusing development away from sensitive areas.
- Fight climate change by putting renewable energy on a level playing field with fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas that are developed on public lands.
If enacted, this bill would enable the U.S. Interior Department to direct money already collected from wind and solar companies to states, counties and important land and wildlife conservation programs.
For example, counties with excellent wind and solar energy potential could benefit from this consistent revenue stream. The Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund supported by this effort would help sustain wildlife and recreational uses of public lands for future generations.
All renewable energy and transmission development on public land can scar the land. Mitigation refers to a way of reducing these impacts.
Specifically the impacts of development can be lessened by:
- Avoiding impacts in the first place by guiding wind and solar to low conflict areas and protecting special wildlands and wildlife habitat from development of any kind.
- Minimizing impacts at the project site. This could include avoiding construction during wildlife migration periods and building projects next to already existing infrastructure like roads and transmission lines.
- Offsetting any impacts that cannot be avoided or minimized. This should include the protection or restoration of nearby lands and wildlife habitat.
By following the steps of avoiding sensitive areas, reducing impacts on project sites and offsetting unavoidable impacts, renewable energy development on public lands can limit impacts. Mitigating the impacts from transmission lines and wind and solar development will allow our country to develop the clean energy we need while still safeguarding wildlands for future generations.
By tapping into renewable resources, these connected, data-driven cities can improve the lives of everyone who lives there and help the planet in the process.