Indianz.Com > News > Montana Free Press: Plans call for more solar development on public lands
Solar Panels - Moapa Band of Paiute Indians
Solar panels on the Moapa River Reservation in Nevada, home to the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians. Photo: First Solar, via U.S. Department of Energy
BLM unveils plan for utility-scale solar development in western states
The United States’ largest land manager is soliciting public input on a plan to open federal land to new solar projects.
Monday, January 22, 2024
Montana Free Press

The Bureau of Land Management last week released a plan to bring utility-scale solar energy projects to five western states that currently lack a framework for permitting such projects. The plan is the result of a year-long effort by the agency to solicit input on what considerations should be foregrounded in the permitting process as it opens federal lands in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington and Oregon to solar development.

The BLM, which manages one-tenth of the land in the nation, and 9% of the land in Montana, described the new plan as part of President Joe Biden’s agenda to accelerate the country’s transition to clean energy and expand the transmission infrastructure needed to tie new projects into the grid. In a January 17 announcement, the agency said that buildout will “lower consumers’ energy costs, prevent power outages in the face of extreme weather [and] create good-paying union jobs,” among other benefits.

“Our public lands are playing a critical role in the clean energy transition — and the progress the Bureau of Land Management is announcing today on several clean energy projects across the West represents our continued momentum in achieving those goals,” BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a release about the plan “Investing in clean and reliable renewable energy represents the BLM’s commitment to building a clean energy economy, tackling the climate crisis, promoting American energy security, and creating jobs in communities across the country.”

The nuts and bolts of the initiative are included in the Utility-Scale Solar Energy Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, also known as the updated Western Solar Plan. The agency is currently soliciting public input on which of the identified alternatives in the draft plan should be adopted.

In addition to a status quo (“no-action”) option, the plan outlines five frameworks for permitting the kind of large-scale solar energy development that’s been in play across southwestern states including New Mexico and Nevada for more than a decade. 

The agency’s preferred alternative, Alternative 3, prioritizes proximity to transmission infrastructure, an acknowledgment that even expanded permitting of new energy projects can’t meet market demand without power lines to move electricity to where it’s needed. Under that alternative, BLM land located within 10 miles of existing or planned high-voltage transmission lines — those with a capacity of at least 100 kV — that also meet additional criteria could be made available for solar projects.

According to the plan, Alternative 3 will prevent “transmission infrastructure sprawl” while “protecting high-value resources, thus reducing habitat fragmentation, natural resource disturbance and environmental and cultural resource impacts.”

Figure ES-3. BLM-Administered Lands Excluded and Available for Application in the 11-State
Planning Area under Alternative 3
Figure ES-3. BLM-Administered Lands Excluded and Available for Application in the 11-State Planning Area under Alternative 3

If the BLM selects Alternative 3 as drafted, approximately 210,000 acres of the more than 8 million acres of BLM-managed land in Montana could become available for solar developments. The majority of the Montana land deemed a good fit for solar development under Alternative 3 is located north of the Hi-Line. About 504,000 acres of BLM land in Montana is located too far from a high-voltage transmission line to be considered, and another 7.3 million acres have been deemed ill-suited to solar development due to concerns related to ecological, historical, cultural and recreational resources. 

More than 20 resource-oriented criteria would preclude an area from consideration under Alternative 3. In addition to wildlife considerations — for example, the presence of big game migration corridors, greater sage grouse habitat or the presence of threatened or endangered species — such exclusionary criteria include the presence of congressionally designated Wild and Scenic rivers or Scenic or Historic trails. Sites of cultural significance to Native American tribes are also excluded. 

Other proposed alternatives in the draft plan dial up or down the emphasis on the following considerations: resource-based concerns, transmission proximity, use of previously disturbed lands, and slope. (Land with a slope of 10% or greater is more susceptible to erosion.) 

The Western Solar Plan does not include detail at the project level. Rather, it’s designed to be a “macro-scale programmatic land use planning effort [that] will provide a framework for making those decisions in a systematic and consistent way.”

In February, the agency hosted a public scoping session in Billings to garner input on the expansion of the Western Solar Plan into Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Some attendees expressed support for the plan and renewable energy development generally, while at least one individual voiced opposition to the use of subsidies to incentivize renewable energy development on BLM land. Other attendees focused their comments on a preference for the use of local laborers to build new solar projects and requests that the agency consider recreational land uses and big game winter habitat while drafting the plan.

The agency is accepting public comment on the Western Solar Plan through April 18, and aims to have a final plan on the books by the end of the year.

Note: This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.