BLM smooths the course for responsible solar energy development on New Mexico Public Lands

Photo credit: Tom Brewster Photography

Recognizing both the potential for solar energy development in the west and the incredible demand for clean energy across the country, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is continuing its work to balance conservation with smart renewable energy development on our public lands.

In New Mexico, the BLM is developing a Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy to help new solar energy projects move forward efficiently in designated zones and offset impacts from development through land and habitat restoration and preservation.

BLM’s investment in developing a Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy for the Afton Solar Energy Zone southwest of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is a clear example of the agency’s commitment to responsibly scaling up renewable energy on our public lands and helping deliver renewable energy jobs and other economic benefits to communities around the west.

The BLM’s work to advance renewable energy on public lands is paying off, with $13.8 billion in capital investments for renewable projects on public lands since 2011, and nearly $30 billion in potential future investments. And solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands earn an impressive annual revenue for the U.S. Treasury of $19.6 million, and another $12.7 million for states and counties — numbers that should continue to grow, so long as the Trump administration’s single-minded focus on fossil fuels doesn’t get in the way.

After finalizing the Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy for Colorado’s solar energy zones in January, the BLM is now focusing its efforts in New Mexico and Utah. This month, BLM took strides towards finalizing a Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy in New Mexico by hosting a workshop in Las Cruces to seek input from the public and stakeholders.

What are Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies?

BLM creates Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies for the agency’s solar energy zones. In 2012, BLM created 17 solar energy zones as part of a multi-state effort to identify places that are well-suited for large-scale solar energy development. These identified zones have excellent solar resources, are close to existing roads and transmission lines, and have limited conflicts with wildlands and wildlife habitat.

BLM prioritizes and facilitates solar development in these zones by providing both financial and permitting incentives. Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies help facilitate solar development in the zones by providing the information necessary to make permitting more efficient and by making it clear to solar developers what their mitigation requirements would be for any given project in the solar energy zone.

The New Mexico strategy will be the fourth Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy to be finalized in the process, following strategies released in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado. These strategies incorporate a “smart-from-the-start” planning approach to renewable energy development. This approach means that the federal government works with solar energy companies to prepare for large projects, including finding ways to increase permitting efficiency, reduce conflict with important resources and to offset and unavoidable impacts.

How does the Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy benefit New Mexico?

The Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies have fostered a modern and inclusive approach to energy development in solar energy zones. The New Mexico Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy provides an opportunity for conservation, community engagement, and clean energy growth in the state.

The Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy accomplishes this in several important ways:

It incentivizes clean energy development

  • The early environmental information it provides can help cut permitting time for solar projects in half, facilitating efficient solar development in the zones.
  • By establishing a recommended mitigation fee up front, it helps solar developers plan costs in advance.

It identifies future conservation actions and sites to offset impacts

  • A mitigation fee, based on impacted resources values and mitigation costs, will be assessed to fund mitigation to offset unavoidable impacts from development.
  • Suitable candidate mitigation sites will be identified for future conservation actions to offset impacts, including sites that are currently unprotected or under protected.

It incorporates the input and concerns of communities, developers and stakeholders

  • BLM has welcomed public input throughout the development of the Solar Regional Mitigation Strategies, including by hosting workshops and webinars and requesting public comments on recommended mitigation sites.
  • Guidelines are included for addressing community concerns along the way as projects are designed and planned.

What’s next?

The BLM is currently reviewing potential mitigation sites recommended by stakeholders and BLM resource experts, and will release a draft Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy with potential mitigation sites for public comment this fall or winter, with a final strategy to follow.

The Wilderness Society is hopeful the four mitigation sites we proposed with our partners (Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, New Mexico Wildlife Federation) will be included in the final plan. These locations include remediation and reclamation of illegal roads in Wilderness Study Areas in Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, habitat protection and restoration in Robledo Mountains Area of Critical Environmental Concern, reclamation of a quarry in Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, and finally, designation of an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in the Caballo Mountain area.

With a final New Mexico Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy in hand, BLM will be better prepared to facilitate efficient solar development in the Afton Solar Energy Zone and ensure that mitigation funds are strategically invested to offset impacts from development.

BLM should also continue to invest in its renewable energy program through also finalizing the Utah Solar Regional Mitigation Strategy; conducting up-front planning to designate additional priority development areas for solar and wind in appropriate locations across the west; and helping projects succeed in priority development areas. Doing so well ensure we continue to see economic benefits from public lands renewable energy development while protecting our natural heritage.