BLM cuts costs for clean energy developers looking to build on public lands
Arizona saw 1 project in 2021, but at least five more are in the pipeline, a federal report says
The Biden administration says it will significantly reduce the amount it charges companies to build wind and solar projects on public land, a move meant to incentivize renewable energy development.
During a visit to Las Vegas on Wednesday following the announcement, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the new policy would cut costs for developers by lowering acreage rents and fees by 50% for new and existing renewable energy projects on public lands.
“It will incentivize industry to partner in responsible solar and wind development and help encourage and inspire other companies to invest in the clean energy economy,” said Haaland.
The policy change comes after the Biden administration committed to permit at least 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public land by 2025 as part of the Energy Act of 2020.
Arizona had one such project permitted in 2021, a solar farm planned to generate 260 megawatts, according to a recent report by the Department of the Interior. But at least five more projects are in the pipeline, four solar , all in the southern half of the state, and one wind in the northwest near the Nevada border.
Neighboring Nevada, meanwhile, has more public land than nearly any other state – second only to Alaska – making Biden’s plan to increase renewable energy on public lands of key importance to the state.
Renewable energy development on Nevada’s public lands is quickly growing, according to the Interior Department. In fiscal year 2021, the Bureau of Land Management authorized 12 renewable energy projects on public lands, more than half of them in Nevada. The agency also said it’s on track to approve 48 wind, solar and geothermal energy projects by 2025, a majority of them in Nevada.
The planned energy projects have the capacity to produce an estimated 31,827 megawatts of electricity — enough to power more than 9 million homes — according to the report, meaning the Biden administration may even exceed its goal of permitting 25,000 MW of renewable energy projects by 2025.
Federal land managers said the policy change was crafted during several listening sessions. A draft of the policy was released for public review and comment in 2021 after BLM was granted the authority to reduce rents and fees for wind and solar projects.
“The Bureau of Land Management continues to take bold steps to attract renewable energy investments on public lands in a way that is environmentally sound,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning in a statement. “This will help support our clean energy economy by creating good paying jobs, increasing our energy security, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
In order to handle the growing number of applications by wind, solar and geothermal developers, Haaland said that BLM would create five new offices across the West to review and expedite proposed projects.
The Renewable Energy Coordination offices will include a national office at the BLM’s headquarters, as well as offices in Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah.
The offices will also help the Interior coordinate with federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Defense.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto joined Haaland for a press conference on the announcement Wednesday. Cortez Masto said the bipartisan infrastructure law passed by the Senate last year will also help Nevada develop more renewable energy by allowing former hard-rock mining sites to be used as solar facilities.
“Nevada is an innovation state. We are building the cutting-edge economy of the 21st century. We are developing solutions to some of our most urgent energy and climate problems,” Cortez Masto said.
Haaland said the Interior is including tribes in the rulemaking process and in project proposals with early engagement and government-to-government consultation.
Growing renewable energy development on Nevada public lands has caused a number of conflicts in recent years between developers, federal land managers, Native American tribes and conservation groups.
Last year a coalition of tribes, conservation groups and rural residents started to push for the creation of a national monument in Clark County after a wind farm developer applied to develop in an area considered sacred to several tribes. Later that same year, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against BLM for approving a geothermal energy project near a spring considered sacred to tribes and home to a rare desert toad.
A group of Moapa Valley residents also successfully campaigned against a massive solar project proposed on public lands near the town last year. While the project had the support of Gov. Steve Sisolak, it was eventually abandoned after major pushback from locals early in the process.
The Trump administration also made efforts to make the permitting process faster for energy and mining development on public land. One infrastructure project on federal land approved by the former president was the Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, which has faced consistent pushback from several Native American tribes who say they were not consulted before its approval.
BLM Nevada State Director Jon Raby said the agency is committed to “maintaining the integrity of public lands” throughout the development of infrastructure projects on public lands.
Raby said the Biden administration has taken “a very very close look” at projects approved during the Trump administration to “ensure those meet the rigorous standards of public involvement, engagement and protection of public lands.”
“If those needed to be reviewed further there were actions taken to do that, and the ones that were felt to meet the current standards continue to advance,” said Raby.
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