Across the American West, Public Lands Are Producing Clean, Sustainable Energy

Public lands have the potential to make significant contributions to the nation’s renewable energy portfolio.

During a visit to the Sonoran Solar Energy Project earlier this month, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis announced new efforts to support solar energy development on public lands across the West and help meet the Biden-Harris administration’s ambitious renewable energy and conservation goals.

“This Administration is committed to expanding clean energy development to address climate change, enhance America’s energy security and provide for good-paying union jobs,” said Secretary Haaland. “We will help ensure we keep the momentum going to build a clean energy future, lower costs for families and create robust conservation outcomes on the nation’s lands and waters.”

These efforts build on an Obama-era strategy to develop solar energy with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land located primarily in 12 western states, including Alaska, on behalf of the American people. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of the sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. 

Public lands have the potential to make significant contributions to the nation’s renewable energy portfolio. To promote the development of these energy sources, the BLM provides sites for the environmentally sound development of renewable energy on public lands.

Increasing renewable energy production, such as solar, wind, and geothermal power on public lands, is at the forefront of federal efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The abundance of open space on public land, especially in the American west, provides a canvas for expanded renewable energy systems.

Arizona’s public land, in particular, is making great strides to contribute clean energy. Officials are in the beginning stages of several projects, such as the Jove project.

If approved, the Jove project would produce up to 600 megawatts of renewable energy from solar photovoltaic modules on 3,495 acres of public land located in southeastern La Paz County.

Additionally, two other projects will contribute 4,400 acres and provide small-scale solar energy for utility use in both Yuma and Maricopa counties.

“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. The power and potential of the clean energy future is an undeniable and critical part of that work,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel-Davis. “The Bureau of Land Management is working diligently to ensure its processes and pace maintain the momentum we are seeing from industry.”

In 2012 under the Obama Administration, BLM and the Department of Energy issued a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in six southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. 

The project identified areas with high solar potential and low resource conflicts to guide responsible solar development and provide certainty to developers.

A decade later, the Department of the Interior is taking these measures further. In early December 2022, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland spoke on the next steps in the country’s goals to utilize our public lands for carbon-free energy purposes. BLM continues to expand solar energy projects and is currently reviewing three potential sites in Arizona which would contribute significant amounts of energy to surrounding areas.

Today, across the West, the BLM is currently processing 65 utility-scale onshore clean energy projects proposed on public lands. These efforts include solar, wind, and geothermal projects, as well as interconnect gen-tie lines that are vital to clean energy projects proposed on non-federal land.

These projects have the combined potential to add over 31,000 megawatts of renewable energy to the western electric grid. The BLM is also undertaking the preliminary review of more than 100 applications for solar and wind development, as well as nearly 50 applications for wind and solar energy testing.

BLM has reported exponential growth of renewable energy systems already in place. In 2021, reports showed a 35 percent increase in megawattage generated from the previous year. These numbers are a direct result of twelve projects the BLM oversaw in 2021. While the reports for 2022 are forthcoming, new developments will keep the upward trend to provide more sustainable energy for American communities.

The Biden administration also announced in early December 2022 that it would be allocating $2.3 million to revitalize the economy in Alaska and Texas by reclaiming and cleaning up abandoned mine lands. This will create union jobs in communities that have relied on the coal industry. The funding is allocated specifically to prioritize these workers who may have lost their jobs as the country moved away from the use of coal. States that previously produced a high percentage of the country’s coal will be at the top of the list for funding.

Not only are abandoned mineshafts dangerous. They also contribute to the climate crisis by leaking methane gas and other pollutants into the environment. Clean-up efforts will address these issues, providing safer living environments for nearby communities. Reclaimed mines could also become sites for future renewable energy source developments.

As the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management work to expand the opportunities for solar and wind power on our public lands, they are keeping in mind the potential impacts of these developments. BLM and the Department of Energy published an environmental impact report back in 2012 addressing conservationist concerns on the use of land for solar power. The report focused on six states from the Obama administration’s beginning advancements into the project. Present-day goals are higher and demand the use of more land to meet the Biden administration’s objectives for a net zero economy. As a result, BLM is seeking to update its environmental impact report addressing new developments.

Starting in December, there will be a 60-day public comment period on future solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects on BLM land. Secretary Haaland affirmed BLM’s commitment to responsible land management while addressing the growing urgency of climate change. She stated that these projects will help to “build a clean energy future, lower costs for families and create robust conservation outcomes on the nation’s lands and waters.”

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20th century rural sociologist, Carl Frederick Kraenzel, coined the term ‘Yonland’ to describe the in-between places left indistinct and vague on a map. Yonlander is a rural publication designed for those outside the city limit sign pursuing a simple, independent lifestyle.

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