Today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a draft of its first ever Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development on public lands. While reading the 10,000 some odd page document will take many weeks of work with our conservation partners, we can say a few things about the document right off the bat.
The BLM is at a critical juncture - the agency currently doesn’t have a solar program and given that they own lands with some of the worlds’ best solar resources, they need one, and quick. With the PEIS the BLM has a terrific opportunity to build that program from the ground up and to make sure that solar development on our public lands is done right from the start – solar projects developed with careful planning up front, located in appropriate places that avoid sensitive wildlife areas and other vital natural resources, and configured in the least environmentally harmful ways.
We can’t repeat the mistakes of fossil fuel development on public lands as we build our clean energy future. Solar is a very new use of public lands, and the BLM has only the experience of permitting this year’s “fast track” projects to build on as it creates this new program. The "fast track" process provided important lessons about how we can do a better job at siting and developing future projects across the West that must be incorporated into the PEIS.
In addition, the PEIS must lay the groundwork for the BLM to do several key things:
- designate appropriate, low-conflict zones as open for development - maximizing use of areas that are already degraded and near existing infrastructure
- require that projects be built in these zones rather than scattered across the landscape
- close all other lands to development
- identify a target for solar energy generation on public lands that will guide planning and permitting on our public lands
For several years now NRDC has been advocating for a guided development approach to solar development on public lands – that is identifying areas with low natural resource values, high solar potential, and needed infrastructure like transmission, that are suitable for development and guiding development to them. By guiding projects to zones, the BLM can ensure that solar projects are built faster, cheaper and better for the environment, developers and consumers. This approach will help us build an environmentally responsible solar industry and meet our renewable energy goals as we address the challenge of climate change in a timely manner.
The alternative to guided development is the status quo that has evolved over the past few years – individual project developers choose where they want to site projects and none of the benefits of guided development are realized, namely: limited development footprint, coordinated mitigation, ample access to electrical transmission lines, certainty for the industry, and more efficient environmental review and permitting.
We will be reviewing the PEIS and writing comments with our conservation partners over the next few months and will share our thoughts on the content of the PEIS after we’ve had an opportunity to dig into it. In the meantime, the 90 day public comment period for the PEIS kicks off Friday December 17th, and you can find out how to submit comments and participate fully in the public process, at this BLM website: http://solareis.anl.gov/involve/index.cfm.