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Published on December 31st, 2011 | by Susan Kraemer


Obama has Nearly Quadrupled Renewable Energy on Public Lands

December 31st, 2011 by  

With two years of the Obama administration, almost four times as much clean energy has been put on the grid on public lands as in all the previous 40 years.

All the renewable energy ever permitted on public lands totaled 1,800 MW by the end of 2008. In the last two years, the Department of the Interior has approved 6,600 MW of new projects.

Rapid and responsible fast track utility-scale production of clean energy is a solution to the climate destabilization caused by continuing the reliance on fossil energy.

These approvals for 25 utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands are enough to power 2.3 million out of the 102 million American households. Not all the renewable projects are on public land.

With two new approvals this week – in which just the transmission and roads associated with them is on public lands – the total DOI approvals cover 27 utility-scale renewable energy projects.

These include 16 solar projects, 4 wind farms and 7 geothermal plants. A boost in staff capable of reviewing renewable energy permits resulted in the much faster pace of approvals, according to Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.

The uptick in clean energy permits marks a real change in US energy on government-owned land. Public lands have traditionally been approved for oil and gas leases which generate federal revenues of between $5 billion and $6 billion a year. To get an idea of the scale of this change, the total for the two years of Obama renewable energy projects approved will generate just under $1 billion a year to the federal coffers: $786 million annually.

Under $1 billion of annual federal revenue from clean energy may seem like peanuts compared with the $6 billion from oil and gas, but bear in mind that these annual lease earnings cover a period all the way back to the beginning of oil with The Mining Law of 1872, while these new clean energy permits cover a mere two years worth of leases.

The last one to be approved in 2011 was the Centinela Solar Energy Project in California, a 275-megawatt solar energy power plant that will connect via a 230-kilovolt transmission line to the existing San Diego Gas & Electric Imperial Valley Substation.

Although it is one of two approved by Interior to be built on private land, the DOI approved a 19-acre public land right-of-way to build the power line.

Like all renewable energy projects, these 27 underwent extensive environmental review and reflect strong efforts to mitigate potential environmental impacts.  For example, the Centinela project required not just that the developer install the transmission lines, but also buy 80 acres of additional habitat for the flat-tailed horned lizard, bringing the project to 2,067 acres.

The Wilderness Society, which has long been lobbying the White House for reform on how electrical grids are planned, built and managed, supported the new approach to rapid deployment.

“Secretary Salazar has laid the foundation for our nation’s entrepreneurs to harness the planet’s wind, sun, heat and other renewable energy sources in a manner that safeguards the wildlife and natural resources that help keep American communities healthy, safe, and prosperous,” Wilderness Society President Bill Meadows said when the DOI laid out this plan at the beginning of this administration.


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About the Author

writes at CleanTechnica, CSP-Today and Renewable Energy World.  She has also been published at Wind Energy Update, Solar Plaza, Earthtechling PV-Insider , and GreenProphet, Ecoseed, NRDC OnEarth, MatterNetwork, Celsius, EnergyNow, and Scientific American. As a former serial entrepreneur in product design, Susan brings an innovator's perspective on inventing a carbon-constrained civilization: If necessity is the mother of invention, solving climate change is the mother of all necessities! As a lover of history and sci-fi, she enjoys chronicling the strange future we are creating in these interesting times.    Follow Susan on Twitter @dotcommodity.

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  • Anonymous

    I’m not trying to be argumentative about this, but just want to chase it further into the weeds…

    In parts of the SW it’s “100 miles” from the snow pack to the ocean and the water moves that distance fairly quickly. Without the marshes/wetlands needed to let it soak into the aquifer. I really think that people are going to make the decision to trap as much of that water as possible, even if they lose 10% to evaporation. Best practices be damned will, I suspect, be the rule.

    Methane, while a much more powerful greenhouse gas, does not remain in the atmosphere anywhere as long as does CO2. Additionally, remember that if we’re talking reservoirs in the SW we aren’t talking about a lot of plant material that’s going underwater. Nothing like building a dam in the rain forest.

    • On the first point. I think we agree. The trick is to keep them from building the dams.

      On the second point, even in Southwest watersheds there will be lots of methane (etc) releases. Most importantly, it is the next two decades during which we are reaching critical tipping points and we absolutely must not put any unnecessary GHGs into the atmosphere whatsoever (especially methane). So the more rapid dissipation of methane compared to CO2 is irrelevant to the current emergency.

  • Xmack

    For as much as this govt subsidises private companies so they can sell the energy to the public at inflated prices…they could supply households with their own solar panels and solve the problem with energy consumption and a savings to people who qualify financially!!

  • If you delve deeply into Obama’s announcement, you will find that the administration is gaming the megawatt numbers by deceptively counting private projects that are not -on- public lands, but which were allowed to run environmentally destructive high voltage power transmission lines -through- public lands -to- those private renewables projects.

    Another key to understanding this announcement is that the administration uses the term ‘utility-scale ‘ to describe the projects fast tracked. This means extremely large projects that are dangerous to wildlife (especially in the case that those projects are solar thermal farms which require huge amounts of water to keep them cool).

    So the question to ask, is why are we putting huge industrial scale utility plants on public lands, much of which is probably habitat for endangered species; species for which big wind and solar farms (and the long high voltage power lines necessary to carry their output from public wildlands to urban areas) are particularly harmful?

    So the megawatt numbers are fudged and the strategy is environmentally harmful.

    Instead, the Obama administration should be providing major incentives for urban centers themselves to be fully developed with community-wide local distributed generation, which consists of millions of installations of smaller scale renewables and efficiency measures and which require no large power lines plowed through natural areas.

    Also note that large power lines from remote areas allow for profit corporations which own those lines to continue controlling electricity and holding it hostage from consumers, charging them high monopoly rates.

    So the Obama administration’s announcement is largely smoke and mirrors, represents an inherently anti-environmental approach to renewable energy generation and transmission, and also pales in comparison to the subsidies being given by the Obama administration to the destructive fossil fuel, nuclear and big ag industries for -their- energy production.

    • Shecky Vegas

      Eric – I’d like to pose a scenario for you:

      You are alone in a room. In front of you is a large box with a hole in the side. You are given two options —

      Option 1: You can stick your hand in the box and one of two things will happen. Either 1) your hand will be chopped off, or 2) you will be rewarded with a large bundle of cash.

      Option 2: You do not stick your hand in the box. But you are not allowed to leave the room and for all eternity it will be only you and the box.

      What do you do?

      • That’s easy. I ignore absurd hypothetical scenarios which have nothing to do with reality, and continue my environmental activism.

    • I am sure they would if they could (put that much clean energy on rooftops). But we have Republican obstruction in the Senate, and the House is legally Tea Party/GOP since 2010 election.

      So, not gonna happen, right. So, the next best thing is find loophole in BLM so can approve renewables on Dept of Interior land. Which they did.

      Numbers are not fudged:

      1. As I said in the story, ‘Not all the renewable projects themselves are on public land. For the last two new approvals at the end of December; just the transmission and roads associated with them is on public lands. The two bring the total DOI approvals to 27 utility-scale renewable energy projects, an unprecedented jump.

      2. As a matter of jurisdiction,energy projects that need transmission across public land must be approved by the BLM:

      Till now, both approvals – on BLM land or crossing BLM land were all oil and gas.

      Now, we are getting clean energy. Good news.

  • Dave

    This is a great opportunity to call the White House and thank President Obama. Positive reinforcement makes behavior more likely to occur in the future. Even with politicians! Lol

    • Anonymous

      Good point.

      Advice taken.

  • Bradleym2

    The greater concern should be the costs associated producing energy that ends up costing consumers and tax payers more.

    The government subsidies for all energy producers should just stop! Regulate, yes. Lease, yes. License, yes. Loans, no. Subsidies, no. Loans back by taxpayers, hell no!

    • Anonymous

      I strongly disagree.

      We should subsidize emerging technologies which promise to improve our lives. It takes time to perfect new technology and there needs to be large enough manufacturing to bring down the price.

      Some years back solar panels were more than $50 per watt. Because we subsidized panels over many years the price has now dropped to less than $1 per watt.

      With subsidies we took wind from very expensive about 30 years ago to now one of our two cheapest ways of producing electricity. Our cheapest renewable.

      That kind of subsidizing is way of investing in a better future.

      I would agree that if a technology can’t support itself after an adequate opportunity then we should cut it loose. Time to quit subsidizing coal and nuclear.

  • Anonymous

    “almost four times as much clean energy has been put on the grid on public lands as in all the previous 40 years.”

    You’re not counting hydropower are renewable?

    • While I personally agree with you that new environmentally sensitive hydro should be counted as renewable, at least in the states that now have lots of water (and expect more under the destabilized climate of the future decades, like the northeast and northwest – not the desertifying states of the southwest) the data I quote is from the DOI, which in this instance is counting just the solar and wind and geothermal on public lands.

      That is probably wise not including hydro, since the way we used to build gigantic dams like Hoover can never be done again (apart from the environmental problems giant dams cause, the Colorado river is drying up in the southwest) so there is no way to compare it.

      • Anonymous

        We may see more hydro in the Southwest. Right now PG&E and the Sacramento utility district (SMUD?) have plans to build new pump-up hydro facilities in the Sierra foothills. I think a third CA utility might as well.

        Then we’re likely to be dealing with less snow pack and more winter rains. That might lead to additional storage dams being built.

        With sooner melting snows we could see more dams in other parts of the SW.

        • Oh, wow, that is news to me. I remember the CEO of PG&E testifying to Boxers committee years ago about how PG&E needs to build in extra renewables because California was expected to lose its hydro potential in future decades in the Sierra foothills… although, rereading, maybe a holding reservoir, then using that for pump-up storage is smart.

          • Anonymous

            There’s now a requirement that CA utility companies include storage in their system. PG&E and SMUD have been looking at pump-up hydro. One of the SoCal utilities was talking about CAES. I haven’t heard anything about plans during the last several months.

            It’s looking to me as if battery technology might be maturing rapidly enough to fill the need. Zinc-air and sodium-ion batteries are promising – cheap materials and companies are claiming high cycle numbers.

            Water is likely to be a major problem in the SW over the coming years. I can see lots of holding reservoirs being built if the snow pack starts melting too fast or not building up at all. If a bit of forethought is put into the projects then they could also be used for energy storage and production.

        • Reservoirs create rainfall problems and increase evaporation (because they are large surface areas of water open to the air and sun). And when first installed, they also cause huge die-offs of vegetation leading to a massive releases of greenhouses through biological decay of that vegetation. So dams/reservoirs are the antithesis to a sustainable response to reduced snow pack and water supply due to climate change.

          • Anonymous

            If more reservoirs are constructed in the SW it’s going to be about providing water for drying cities. Not for electricity production, though that might be a side benefit.

            I’m not sure that I buy your evaporation argument. If the runoff is not trapped in reservoirs it’s going to quickly run to the sea. Some will evaporate but more will be saved for use.

            The problem of methane release. I wonder how the math works out in terms of plant decay emissions vs. many years of fossil fuel avoidance?

            (I’m not advocating for more dams. Just looking at what may happen as snow packs disappear faster and other sources dry up.)

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