The Renewable Energy Train Has Left the Station — Will Public Lands Stay On Board?

Photo by Daniel Hoherd, flickr

Renewable energy capacity across the United States is growing faster than ever before, with clean energy jobs in solar and wind power now outnumbering those in the natural gas and coal industries. And thanks to public demand for cleaner energy and plummeting project costs, renewable energy’s rise is showing no signs of slowing down.

Though the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have demonstrated a clear focus on establishing fossil fuels as the dominant use of our public lands, the renewable energy train has clearly left the station.

The U.S. solar power industry now supports more jobs (373,807) than the natural gas industry (362,118) and twice the number of jobs of the coal industry (160,119). In fact, in 2016, solar employment grew 17 times faster than the U.S. economy, to become one of the fastest growing job fields in the U.S.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration found that “energy production from wind and solar were at record highs in 2016,” while coal’s share continues to decline, now sitting at just over 30 percent. Our public lands play an important and growing role in supporting the transition towards a clean energy future — the wind, solar and geothermal projects approved on public lands to-date could power more than 7 million homes.

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), responsible for the management of our nation’s energy resources on public lands, has implemented a smart approach to help guide renewable energy development to low-conflict areas and ensure these large-scale industrial projects provide maximum clean energy benefits while limiting impacts to wildlands and wildlife habitat.

This focus on pre-screening and designating leasing areas is increasing permitting efficiency and predictability and reducing costs and uncertainty for developers. The approach 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.

The economics are clear — renewable energy creates jobs and lots of them, along with tens of billions of dollars in investment. But most importantly, wind, solar and geothermal projects provide power to run our homes and businesses without the dirty byproducts of fossil fuels development. The plummeting price of clean energy has allowed the US to decrease its carbon emissions over the last three years while the country’s Gross Domestic Product has increased.

Further, a recent study found that between 2007 and 2015, the increase in wind and solar power generation and resulting reduction in air pollution helped avoid $56 billion in public health impacts (primarily from avoided premature deaths). Reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from increased wind and solar resulted in an additional $32 billion in climate benefits.

Continued growth for renewables on public lands

Utilities across the U.S. are continuing to increase their renewable energy portfolios, making specific plans to purchase more solar and wind power because of attractive pricing, public demand, and environmental stewardship.

In April of this year, Rocky Mountain utility PacifiCorp announced a $3.5 billion expansion plan to build 1,100 megawatts (MW) of new wind generation by the end of 2020, primarily in Wyoming, where public lands will likely help support some of the projects.

PacifiCorp has even more expansive long-term plans for renewable generation — between 2028 and 2036 adding another 859 MW of new wind capacity (85 MW in Wyoming and 774 MW in Idaho) and building 1,040 MW of new solar capacity. Notably, 2036 is the deadline for PacifiCorp to retire over 3,000 MW of its coal-fired power generation.

“This is a win-win and represents our continued commitment to both reduce the environmental impact of the energy we produce and keep costs low,” Pacific Power President and CEO Stefan Bird said in a statement. Pacific Power is the unit of PacifiCorp that serves customers in Oregon, Washington, and California.

In Southern Nevada, there continues to be a strong interest in solar energy development and the BLM is looking to identify additional designated solar leasing areas (or solar energy zones) — pre-screened areas of public lands determined to have excellent energy development potential and limited conflicts with wildlife habitat and other sensitive resources and uses.

The Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone outside of Las Vegas demonstrates the benefits of this approach, with projects in this zone permitted in less than half the average time for solar projects on public lands and set to deliver solar energy at one of the cheapest rates in the nation.

Renewable energy also has great potential for growth on public lands in California, where BLM designated 600 square miles of development focus areas for solar, wind and geothermal projects through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation plan. By efficiently facilitating development in these low conflict areas, the BLM can ensure public lands continue to play an important role in helping California meets its mandate to produce 50 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by the year 2030.

Public lands could help lead the way

Public lands have world-class renewable energy resources, and BLM has designated 700,000 acres of low-conflict, priority wind, solar and geothermal leasing areas, enough land to support hundreds of additional projects. And there is strong support from the American people for continued investment, with eighty percent of western voters supporting more wind and solar development on public lands.

But with President Trump and Interior Secretary Zinke’s many efforts to prioritize fossil fuels development over all other uses of public lands, it remains to be seen whether we will continue to enjoy the benefits of responsible renewable energy development on public lands.

Just how much of an uphill battle does renewable energy on public lands face under a Trump administration? The President and the Secretary pay lip service to an “all of the above energy strategy”, but their actions speak louder than their words. President Trump’s FY18 budget proposed slashing the BLM’s renewable energy funding by nearly half, while doubling down on oil and gas.

Further exemplifying the influence of the Administration’s fossil fuel focused agenda, a new study released by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the nation’s electricity grid and reliability makes policy recommendations regarding accelerating and reducing costs for the permitting of grid infrastructure such as coal generation — recommendations that are being questioned by some grid experts. While touting the need to reinvigorate outdated and highly polluting coal fired power plants, the study fails to acknowledge the resiliency of renewable energy and the contributions it makes to a reliable grid.

Future development on public lands

We remain hopeful that the President and Secretary will listen to the demands of the American people for more clean energy, recognize the economic and job benefits it provides, and continue to invest in responsible renewables development on public lands.

To ensure that public lands can help meet this demand President Trump should support full funding for BLM and other DOI agencies’ renewable energy programs to ensure that agency staff can continue to advance renewable energy permitting, leasing and planning activities, as well as necessary environmental studies and consultations to help ensure projects avoid and minimize conflicts with other important resources and uses, including recreation and conservation.

Congress and the Administration should also work to pass common sense legislation like the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act (PLREDA). This bipartisan bill promotes the responsible development of renewable energy on public lands, while ensuring revenues are shared with communities and local conservation efforts. Further, by proactively identifying priority leasing areas for wind, solar and geothermal development, PLREDA encourages smart siting and efficient permitting of projects in places with high energy potential and low impact on wildlands and wildlife habitat.

Fully funding agency programs and passing legislation to promote the responsible advancement of clean energy will ensure that the American people benefit from the rich renewable energy sources on our public lands while protecting our natural heritage for future generations.