Dry Lake Success Demonstrates Public Lands Solar Potential

Flipping the switch at Switch Station 1 and 2 in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone (photo by Alex Daue, TWS)

The recent commissioning of 179 megawatts of utility-scale solar projects on public lands outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, showcases that even amid a fossil-fuel focused administration, clean energy development continues to advance, thanks to a successful model known as the Western Solar Plan.

Established by the Bureau of Land Management, the Western Solar Plan initially designated 285,000 acres of priority solar development areas on public lands in southwestern states across 17 pre-screened, low-conflict zones near existing roads and transmission, while also protecting important wildlands and wildlife habitat from development.

Subsequent planning efforts in California and Arizona expanded the designations to a total of 700,000 acres of priority solar, wind and geothermal zones that are ripe for development.

The newly commissioned projects built by First Solar — Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2 — are located in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone outside Las Vegas, and are the first-ever utility scale solar plants to be built in the BLM designated zones after a competitive auction.

The 179 MW of power generated from the two solar projects is enough clean energy to meet the consumption needs of 46,000 homes, displacing nearly 265,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to removing almost 52,000 cars off the road. The projects had a total construction workforce of 1,300, highlighting the economic benefits of renewable energy development.

Dry Lake is a prime example of picking the right place from the start for such energy development, as lands within and near the zone contain multiple transmission lines, several power plants and other industrial facilities, mining operations, highways and a railroad.

This all helps ensure that solar projects in the zone can efficiently deliver their energy to the cities where it will be used, while also limiting controversy and conflict with wildlife habitat and wildlands. And because of the up-front work to review potential impacts, developing in these designated zones is quicker.

In June 2015, the BLM approved solar projects in the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in less than half of the average time of previous solar energy projects on public lands, a testament to the benefits of these pre-screened zones.

And through mitigation planning for Dry Lake, the BLM could offer more predictability for developers and better conservation outcomes from investment of mitigation funds in preservation and restoration of other nearby lands and habitat.

This smart approach provided clarity and consistency for both clean energy development and conservation. So long as Congress and the Trump Administration continue to invest in this program, it will provide a solid platform for continued renewable energy development on public lands and associated economic growth. With strong bipartisan support for renewable energy on public lands, we are hopeful that this will come to fruition.

Describing the Dry Lake projects, BLM Nevada State Director John Ruhs said, “This is another great example of the Federal Government and private industry collaborating on improving our nation’s energy independence and infrastructure under the auspices of multiple use of our shared public lands,” in a press statement released by EDF Renewable Energy, the owner of the projects.

New opportunities

Success of pre-screened renewable energy zones on public lands does not stop with Dry Lake. In fact, the Western Solar Plan was never intended to be the end of the story on responsible clean energy development on public lands; rather, it was the start of the approach. In addition to helping projects succeed in the existing 700,000 acres of zones, BLM will designate additional solar and wind zones as renewable energy markets and regional demands for development evolve.

Efforts are currently underway to identify additional solar energy zones in southern Nevada, beyond what the Western Solar Plan originally designated. This is happening because the BLM is revising its overall Resource Management Plan (RMP) for southern Nevada, and the area continues to see increasing solar development interest.

The RMP covers a range of issues, which BLM must balance to create a successful plan — designating new solar zones in low-conflict areas with high solar development potential, while managing priority conservation resources like lands with wilderness characteristics and Areas of Critical Environmental Concern for protection.

A public comment period for a Revised Draft southern Nevada RMP concludes on February 2, 2018, with several public meetings occurring before this through the month of January. A variety of stakeholders including conservationists and energy developers are working together to provide input to the BLM to help identify low-conflict, successful solar energy zones that could be designated in the revised RMP.

BLM’s Wind and Solar Leasing Rule prioritizes development in low-conflict zones on public lands, and provides financial and permitting streamlining incentives for projects in these areas. Though zone designation has been focused in the southwest to-date, the program applies across BLM lands and the agency intends to continue to identify additional zones in areas with high development interest.

Future growth depends on continued investment, and we remain hopeful that the Trump Administration and Congress will listen to the demands of the American people for more clean energy, recognize the economic and job benefits it provides, and continue to advance responsible renewables development on public lands.