There’s no slowing the US Department of the Interior’s (DOI) roll to build out America’s renewable electricity capacity on public lands – offshore wind may have come first, but now it’s time for solar energy.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) this week announced it would hold the first competitive lease auction for solar development on public lands, for Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) located in southern Colorado.
Just three months after DOI approved 4 gigawatts (GW) of new renewables on federal land, BLM’s announcement could kick off a solar powered land rush with huge potential economic and environmental benefits on 19 SEZs across the Western United States.
First Lease Auction Targets Two Colorado Sites
These first two auctions are the culmination of a two-year planning effort by the federal government to expand utility-scale solar power on public lands. The Western Solar Plan, approved in October 2012, covers 285,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.
Additional auctions will likely follow in due time, but this one will focus on 3,705 acres across two locations in Colorado. The Los Mogotes East SEZ, located in Conejos County, totals 2,650 acres just 3 miles from an existing 69-kilovolt (kV) transmission line. The De Tilla Gulch SEZ, located in Saguache County, totals 1,064 acres with an existing 155-kV transmission along its eastern border.
Like the large zones designated for offshore wind development in the Atlantic Ocean, SEZ locations are the product of extensive environmental and infrastructure evaluation. This Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) process not only streamlines the regulatory review process, but also includes incentives for project developers that could ultimately unlock 23.7 gigawatts (GW) of new solar energy capacity.
Actual Value For Public Lands
DOI’s “smart from the start” approach has already resulted in successful bids for offshore wind development and could usher in a new wave of solar projects (and government revenue) on federal land. “This process will facilitate the Department’s priority approach to making appropriate public lands available for renewable energy development in the Solar Energy Zones and ensure a fair return to taxpayers for the commercial use of these lands,” said Helen Hankins of BLM.
Minimum bids for the lands have been set at 5% of the rent value for the land for one year under BLM’s solar rental policy, and are based on the value of the interests acquired by applicants to develop in the SEZ.
That’s an important distinction between solar leasing previous leasing practices for fossil fuels. For instance, coal-mining leases on public lands have come under criticism for being undervalued, thus costing states and the federal government millions in revenue while acting as a subsidy for dirty energy.
But in addition to helping level the playing field, DOI is also making sure these solar-rich areas stay out of the hands of fossil fuel developers – just two months ago, DOI halted any new coal mining claims across SEZ-designated acreage for a minimum of 20 years.