Transcript: More solar on public lands? Digging into BLM’s plan

Feb 22, 2024

AARON

Our guest today is Justin Meuse, Director of Government Relations for Climate and Energy at the Wilderness Society. Justin, welcome to, I believe this is your first time on the Landscape.

JUSTIN

Yes it is, Aaron. Thank you very much for having me.

AARON

So we got you here today to talk about this proposal from the Bureau of Land Management, it would prioritize around 22 million acres of public land for utility scale solar development across the West. That’s the top line on this, but what else would this plan do?

JUSTIN

Yeah, that’s a really good top line, Aaron. So the Western Solar Plan update is a landscape level analysis that the Bureau of Land Management has embarked upon, that’s in fact an update on a landscape level analysis dated about 10 years ago, and its purpose is to determine which BLM lands are or may be appropriate for solar applications across 11 western states.

So this is an update on the analysis conducted during the Obama administration, which was itself supplemented by state specific updates in California and Arizona, which did the same. And the 11 western states that it applies to, um, are the six states that were covered by the 2012 plan, which are Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California.

And it adds five additional Western states, which include Washington State. Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. And essentially what the plan does is it determines two sets of criteria. It includes resource based exclusion criteria. So these are land, these are features of lands that are not acceptable for solar energy development.

And some examples of that are areas of critical environmental concern, lands with wilderness characteristics, lands that are used for recreation and habitats and things like that. And it also puts forward five alternatives for potential priority criteria. So these are criteria that will guide where it may be acceptable for solar applications to happen.

And those five alternatives include criteria that include things like  proximity to transmission. So one of the criteria is within 10 miles of a transmission line of a certain load or more.  Another is the slope of the land. So 10 percent or less is another criteria included there. A third is whether lands have been previously disturbed or degraded or otherwise developed.

And the alternatives include essentially just different combinations of those criteria to determine which lands may be acceptable for solar applications. And the preferred alternative that the administration has put forward in its draft programmatic EIS is called Alternative 3, and it combines the transmission proximity criterion with the slope criterion, the 10 percent or less.

So that’s Alternative 3. Another alternative that we at the Wilderness Society are especially interested in is the fifth criteria set, which is those two plus disturbed and degraded lands. So, in the preferred alternative, that would put about just over 22 million acres of BLM lands in the West.

AARON

All right, so let me try to summarize. Tell me if this is more or less right. So this means number one, do build close to existing transmission lines, don’t build on steep cliffs or mountains or rolling hills, and do build on places that have already been disturbed because of other development or oil and gas or things like that.

That is kind of the three big things that are important right now?

JUSTIN

Yeah, in, in our view at the Wilderness Society, that’s absolutely true. I will note that the preferred alternative put forth is not considering the disturbed and degraded criterion, um, but yeah. But there’s some room in this process.

AARON

We’ll get into that, what that means in a second. Kate?

KATE

Yeah, Justin, so you’ve mentioned that this is a proposal. It’s, I guess it’s called a programmatic. environmental impact statement. What do those words mean and what comes next in this process?

JUSTIN

Yeah absolutely, Thanks for the question Kate. It’s a landscape level analysis. Basically what it is is a 30,000 foot planning process, which will determine which areas are available for solar applications and which aren’t. So the ultimate goal is to guide applications away from areas that are highest conflict and towards areas that are lowest conflict. And then after that, project level, analyses will happen once applications are made.

KATE

And, and does it come along with like a comment period and, um, all of those things we expect out of like a NEPA process?

JUSTIN

Yeah, absolutely. So there’s a 90 day comment period that began when this this proposal was released and that’ll conclude on April 18th. And the Bureau of Land Management is looking for comments on, you know, which alternative, folks want to see selected on the criteria.

And another thing that I haven’t mentioned yet, which are programmatic design features, which are requirements that projects must have in order to, to move forward in the application areas. You know, some examples of those include, you know, design features requiring development developers to retain short native plant species that will fit under solar panels and essentially make these developments work better with the the lands on which they’re sited.

KATE

So let’s zoom out  And talk about how solar leasing on public lands works right now. Is that process similar to oil and gas leasing?

JUSTIN

Yeah, yeah, you know, It’s pretty different from oil and gas leasing.

You know, I mentioned before that there was a 2012 programmatic environmental impact statement that guided development towards priority areas. They’re called designated leasing areas or solar energy zones, which are both terms of art. But, you know, essentially in those designated leasing areas, there are competitive auctions, because those are areas that have been pre screened, um, to avoid conflict and also areas known to have high solar potential and then, so there’s a competitive leasing process for those, but then there’s also about 19 million acres of land variance areas currently. And those are places where renewable energy companies can apply for rights of way, which are different rights of way grants, which are different from rights of way leases. And those are not prescreened. So there’s a slightly different process for these variance lands than there are for these designated leasing areas.

But in those designated leasing areas, it is, you know, roughly analogous to how it is for oil and gas. You mentioned that this is an update of the Obama era plan that was put in place 10 years ago. This is expanding this to cover several more states, but give us a sense of how the renewables space has changed and evolved in the last decade.

AARON

What do we know now and how is both the industry and America’s power grid different than it was 10 years ago?

JUSTIN

Yeah, that’s a great question, Aaron. I think there’s one component of the 2012 plan that’s illustrative of how the technology’s changed. And one of the resource based exclusion criteria back in 2012 that excluded areas from even being considered for development was insolation.

So this is not insulation like you insulate your house, but rather, you know, how much sunlight a certain parcel of land gets. And, and there was a, you know, in the 2012 plan, there was certain lands that got less than a certain threshold of sunlight in a given year were excluded from development and because of those very technological advancements that have happened in the last 10 years that you referenced, you know, you can get more with less with today’s photovoltaic solar panels, That then you were able to with, you know, concentrated solar back in 2012, or the panels that we were dealing with back then.

So this plan at hand gets rid of that specific exclusion criteria, and that’s also, you know, in part why you’re seeing, you know, more interest and, you know, potential availability in states further north.

KATE

So, Justin, I think you may have touched on this, but why are they redoing the plan right now, they being the BLM?

JUSTIN

So there are a number of goals that have been either congressionally mandated or put forward by the Biden administration. One is a goal of achieving permitting 25 gigawatts of onshore renewable energy by 2025, and another is decarbonizing the electricity sector by 2035. Um, and ultimately, in order to meet those goals, especially the second goal we just need to do more to make public lands part of the climate solution, and that includes siting more solar, solar panels and, and developing more renewable energy on public lands.

And you know, one thing I’ll point to in the plan that’s at hand here is that, ultimately the goal is not to develop 22 plus million acres of public lands for solar, but rather to get about 700,000 acres of solar over the next 20 years. And, you know, in the programmatic EIS itself, the Bureau of Land Management states that that will really get us a lot closer to that 100 percent carbon free electricity grid by 2035 and in particular, the solar energy added by those 700,000 acres of panels will avoid roughly 123 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, which is really, it’s the equivalent of taking 27 million passenger vehicles off the road every year, which is just a huge bite out of the climate crisis.

AARON

And so just doing that quick math, that means of these 22 million acres, ultimately BLM would like to see about three, three and a half percent of it developed. Is that right?

JUSTIN

Yeah, over the next 20 years. That’s right.

KATE

So just to summarize that, the goal here is to sort of speed up renewable development on public lands.

JUSTIN

That’s right. That’s right. And do so in a responsible manner that involves stakeholders at, at very early in the decision process.

That, that’s ultimately what this landscape level plan is, is giving folks the opportunity to weigh in on, you know, what’ll, what’ll be available. Right? And there’s a 90 day comment period for folks to be engaged for the Bureau of Land Management to consult with communities and with tribal stakeholders and with cooperating agencies across the West ensure that, you know, that kind of  ramp up of renewable energy that we really need to see is done, you know, without leaving folks behind.

AARON

So I think that brings us to the 64, 000, 64 gigawatt question, which is how are they doing? Are they avoiding conflict so far? Are there big concerns? Are there little concerns around the edges of this thing? What kind of feedback are you hearing?

JUSTIN

A lot of people are concerned about public lands and landscapes and ecosystems.

They care about being taken over by solar and say, and, you know, we agree that that’s why we need to do this type of landscape level planning.  You know, we at the Wilderness Society really don’t want to see this kind of haphazard development of our treasured public lands. So that’s why we’re engaging so much on this process to ensure that, you know, our public lands are developed with care and that solar energy is cited responsibly and with extensive community and stakeholder involvement.

So that’s 1 concern that I’ve heard is just that the character of the public lands will change. And, you know, we’re trying to do everything that we can to ensure that it doesn’t, and, you know, another concern that I’ve heard is just, it seems like a lot of folks think that, and, and I don’t think some of the headlines have helped, but, you know, they think that this will equate to 22 plus million acres of public lands being developed, and that’s simply not the case.

I mean, we just went over it. The ultimate goal is about 700,000 acres over the next 20 years. So I just want to do everything that I can from my soapbox to point folks to that fact.

KATE

So Justin, I think you’ve mentioned transmission, but how does this plan affect transmission? This is more about building out large solar arrays, correct? Or is transmission wrapped up in this too?

JUSTIN

Yeah, there isn’t a ton of overlap. You know, one thing that we want to ensure and one thing that we think that this plan does, you know, in the alternatives that have been proposed is guiding solar development to where transmission already is or where transmission has been proposed.

So we think that’s really smart. We think that’s important. That’s been a bit of a roadblock for some of the solar energy zones that we’ve seen not get developed since 2012. So, you know, in that sense, transmission is very important, but it is only tangentially related in that sense.

AARON

You mentioned that after the Obama plan, there were some state additions that happened. One of those, I believe, was the DRECP in California, the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan. Were there lessons learned from DRECP that went into this region wide plan. And from what you can tell, was that process successful so far now, a couple of years past DRECP implementation?

JUSTIN

Yeah, no, those are great questions, Aaron. And the DRECP, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, is something that, you know, I know the Wilderness Society has advocated really heavily on. I will say that a lot of that work in fact, all of that work predates me, but I’m happy to talk a little bit more about it.

So one thing that’s really great about the DRECP is, you know, not only is it working, but it also struck a really important and delicate balance and was signed off on by a diverse group of stakeholders that included conservation organizations, tribes, state agencies, and, you know, renewable energy companies, in these same stakeholders, you know, have consistently urged the Bureau of Land Management not to adjust it.

I mean, I say that with some reservations considering we have heard. The renewable energy industry does want to open up additional acreage, um, but, uh, you know, I will also say that some tribes in the area, particularly the CRIT,  uh, have expressed concerns with the DRECP that it didn’t do enough to avoid impacts to cultural properties and landscapes.

Um, but that’s, you know.  What I will say about that is that, um, you know, the DRECP, like the plan at hand here is, is imperfect. And that site specific analysis, that second step, when you look at a specific parcel of land, whether it’s going to be developed once an application has been submitted, um, that site specific analysis is just so important. And tribal engagement, is Community engagement really has to happen there too, um, to ensure that, you know, any sort of decisions made at the programmatic level don’t, um, you know, uh, don’t over influence what happens at the project level.

AARON

Alright, so we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of planning where Solr goes as opposed to just giving developers a free for all. Um, obviously that’s a good thing, um, we’re all in support of that. How well would you say the BLM has been following the existing Obama era solar plan and how well has that, um, avoid has helped, has that helped BLM avoid, um, uh, what’s the word for it? Um, conflicts such as like the Sun Zia transmission line.

JUSTIN

Yeah, that’s a great question. Um, and I’ve, I know that I’ve mentioned that there were, there were, um, you know, just, just under 300, 000 acres of, of  Prioritized areas, um, priority areas that came out of the 2012 plan, and then about 19 million acres of variance areas, um, and, you know, that was, that presented a bit of a problem, um, you know, there’s been a lot of interest in those variance areas, um, and I will say about the variance areas that they didn’t have the same level of environmental analysis that went into them, um, and, uh, So, you know, there have just been more conflicts there as a result.

Um,  you know, we, in the programmatic EIS, we’ve seen, uh, you know, the Bureau of Land Management points to about 17 projects that have been cited and permitted in solar energy zones versus about 17 in variance areas. Um, so, you know, that shows that there’s some interest in these priority areas. Um, and one that I’ll, I’ll you know, point out in particular, um, that show us like kind of the model for how this can work and how this has worked over the last 10 years is the Dry Lake Solar Zone, um, which was designated, uh,  uh, you know, back in 2012.

That’s in Nevada. Um, so In Nevada, the 2012 Western Solar Plan established the Dry Lake Solar Zone. It’s a designated leasing area on lands that were already impacted by development. Um, you know, it was in a solar energy zone, meaning that it had already been analyzed for, for conflicts. Um, and ultimately, uh, the permitting time for that project was less than half of the average permitting time for, for projects, uh, you know, not in priority areas in those variance areas.

So You know, the Obama plan has showed us that, you know, when, um, when industry applies to build in an area that’s been prescreened for conflict, the process can just go so much faster. Um, and that’s, that’s really kind of  the quintessential example of, uh, of, of how this can and should work.

AARON

So take us down the road six months, you know, past this comment period. And as we look towards it being finalized and then let’s say six years down the road, how will you know if this has been a success or a failure or halfway in between?

JUSTIN

I’d say a good metric for the success of this is the pace of the projects that that. Uh, that are permitted over, you know, the next 5-10 years, and the degree to which you see opposition to these projects on the ground.

Um, it’s, it’s going to be extremely important for, for these projects to be done right. I, I think that, um, the last thing that we want to see is, uh, you know, false narratives about, about solar, um, you know, proliferate

AARON

Let’s dive in there. So you’re talking about measuring success by  minimizing conflict or opposition. And then you do mention these false narratives. Uh, can you give some examples there of what may be  more real valid concerns about the effects of solar, say on, on. Water supplies, uh, or on wildlife and more concerns that you might fall, uh, you might, might, might put into the NIMBY category of folks who, who just don’t  want to see solar projects within their viewshed?

JUSTIN

Yeah, no, we, we, there are some extremely valid concerns about, about,  about renewable energy generally on public lands. You know, we’ve, I think there’s a really good example. Um, you know, it’s in the transmission space, but I think it carries over here of, you know, when you, when you really start doing the project level outreach and analysis, you know, in Sunzia specifically, you know, there’s been a lot of, um, a lot of opposition from, from, you know, tribal partners who, um,  have raised concerns about infrastructure, uh, In negative, negatively impacting cultural resources.

Um, you know, those are extremely valid concerns and that’s not something that you can necessarily put on a map, um, at the programmatic stage. And that’s something you just need to dive into at the,  on the ground. Um,

AARON

Yes right there. And it’s, well, it’s not always an either or. There’s a gradient there between, you know, obviously the concerns on the San Pedro with the, with the Sun Zia project, very real environmental concerns about what happens to a riparian area in the desert. And on the other hand, there are folks who don’t like looking at solar panels. And yeah, how do you balance that? How do you work with folks who might fall more on that latter side?

JUSTIN

Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s a tough one to answer. You know, I mean, one thing that I think is it kind of puts renewable energy at a disadvantage is the fact that, you know, with oil and gas, you have a royalty rate, which is a percent that the companies have to pay when they produce oil and gas on federal lands, half of which goes back to the American taxpayer and half of which goes back to the state on which the land on which the production is happening. That doesn’t happen with renewable energy projects, you know, there are rents and there are megawatt capacity fees, but that all goes straight back into the federal coffer.

It doesn’t go back to communities in the same way. So it’s a really tricky balance or it’s a really, it’s a really tricky issue, I should say. Because you know, that requires legislation. That’s not something that can be solved via regulation or via this programmatic EIS. You know, so it would be a lot easier to be able to reach out to those communities with those types of concerns with, you know, something substantial like revenue. And I know that one thing that could be considered in the programmatic design features is something called a community benefit agreement which is, you know, a way for renewable energy companies to work with communities to ensure that they also benefit from the production that occurs from the panels next to their communities instead of it just being shipped, you know, across state lines, for instance.

KATE

Justin, thank you so much for your thoughts. I do have one more question for you, which is, it sounds like this solar plan is a good step forward, if not the most comprehensive step ever. Do you have any other thoughts you want to share on solar development at large, sort of, beyond just this plan?

JUSTIN

Yeah, thank you for the question, Kate.  One thing that I hear a lot from folks is we should put solar panels on rooftops and over parking lots and over previously disturbed sites that are not necessarily federal lands or X, Y, Z, other places that are not public lands and we should invest in energy efficiency and I think it’s all of the above, right?

Like, building rooftop solar is an important part of the equation and working on energy efficiency is part of the equation. And we at the Wilderness Society also believe that our nation’s treasured federal public lands should be part of the climate solution by accommodating solar and wind and geothermal and that they have vast resources that can help power our renewable energy future. So it’s not just either or, it’s and, and.  We’re just really invested in making sure that it’s done right and responsibly and with the involvement of all the people who would be affected by it either directly or indirectly.

AARON

I think that’s a great place to leave it. Justin Muse, Director of Government Relations for Climate and Energy at the Wilderness Society.

JUSTIN

Thank you so much for your time today. Thank you.