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Powering Public Lands: Government Puts Solar Energy in the Spotlight

Left: BLM land open to solar development before 2011; right: BLM's current 17 solar energy zone. Maps: NRDC

Wind, solar, geothermal and other so-called green energy sources might not spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but they're far from benign.

Ask any bird conservationist what she or he thinks of wind farms and you might get a less-than-glowing response. Back in 2005, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency put migratory bird mortality due to wind turbines somewhere around 440,000 each year. And solar power developers made no friends among the conservation world when the Ivanpah solar project in Southern California and adjacent to the Mojave Desert Preserve butted up against the endangered desert tortoise. The project was stalled as many hundreds of the reptiles were relocated.

"For a couple of years I was basically in cardiac arrest," says Ileene Andrerson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Because of the amount of land to be developed [for renewable energy] and the piecemeal approach."

Anderson is referring to the years following the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, during which companies filed hundreds of project applications for mostly solar but also wind projects on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which had $350 million in ARRA funds with which it was mandated to "restore landscapes and habitat, spur renewable energy development on public lands, and create jobs."

That looks great on paper, but environmental groups quickly raised red flags over where the renewable energy developments would be sited and what oversight (or lack thereof) would be placed on them. This effectively pitted greens against greens in what looked like a counterproductive, senseless battle. But Bobby McEnaney, land policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, contends that the efforts the NRDC and similar groups have made to ensure renewable energy is developed with minimal negative impacts on wildlife, recreation access and cultural resources were rooted in lessons learned from decades of oil and gas development on public lands.

"Solar and wind energy developers would probably prefer the laissez-faire approach, which is what oil and gas developers have had on BLM land," McEnaney says. "But two wrongs don’t make a right."

In an attempt to address this concern and make the process for permitting solar power on public lands more efficient, on October 12 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a record of decision approving the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for commercial grade solar energy development on public lands on six Southwestern states. Yes, that is as wonky as it sounds. But the PEIS is important because it defines 17 areas called Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), which have been selected as most appropriate for solar energy development based on a number of criteria, including their vicinity to existing transmission lines and the relatively low impact development would have on wildlife and "cultural resources."

So what are cultural resources? They're areas that are of cultural significance to Native Americans, but this category also includes tracts under wilderness designations and those containing recreational trails within their viewsheds. In other words, the SEZs are sited such that you're not likely to gain the summit after a long, hot hike, only to look down upon a massive solar array.

Before the PEIS was developed, there were 80 million acres of public land open to solar energy development. The 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) total about 285,000 acres, so the available land has been significantly reduced. But if fully built out, projects in the designated areas could produce as much as 23,700 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power approximately seven million American homes, according to Department of Interior. Plus, the final PEIS has still held a legal door open to another 19 million acres of land, called "variance" areas, where solar development may be permitted.

The NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, and other environmental groups that worked with the BLM to draft the PEIS are not fans of these variance areas, but they see the establishment of a programmatic approach to solar siting on BLM land to be a major achievement and a win-win for conservation, public access and energy developers.

The SEZs also make development more efficient and less costly for energy developers, says Craig Mortimore, renewable energy coordinator for the Nevada Wilderness Project. "There is one NEPA clearance for each zone, whereas normally, each energy developer would have to undertake NEPA on their own," he says, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the framework for environmental impact reviews required on federal land.

As the climate changes, a number of animal species are already starting to adjust their migration patterns, so keeping wildlife corridors unimpeded by energy development was also a key consideration is siting the solar projects. "It was frightening to see the desert cut up without concern for connectivity," says Anderson about the earlier tracts that the BLM had initially opened for solar development.

Keeping corridors open for species movement is important not just with respect to the location solar arrays but also the transmission lines that connect them to the electrical grid. This is an issue very near to the heart of Adam Bradley, a distance hiker who followed the 501-mile path of the proposed Southwest Intertie Project (SWIP), a 500kV AC transmission line stretching between Idaho and southern Nevada. The line plays an important role in renewable energy development, as it links and carries wind and solar energy from southern Idaho to southern Nevada. Bradley hiked its proposed path to better understand the potential impacts the line would have on the Nevada landscape and its wildlife.

Bradley undertook the hike (with the support of the Nevada Wilderness Project) to highlight the possibilities for conservation groups and energy developers to work together. The main concerns around the line's proposed path were that it would potentially impact critical sage-grouse habitat, and that power lines are often used as hunting perches for raptors, which would increase the threats to the sage-grouse.

In the end, Bradley says, the line was rerouted around the most sensitive landscapes, and some towers designed to prevent raptors from nesting were used.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

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