Siting Renewable Energy Responsibly on Public Lands

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Originally published on the NRDC Expert Blog.
By Joshua Axelrod 

Following passage of an ambitious 25-gigawatt renewable energy siting goal in December 2020, Congress is considering legislation that will help that goal be met responsibly, with as little environmental harm as possible.

Representative Mike Levin (D-CA) has reintroduced the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2021 (PLREDA) at a critical moment for energy development on federal public lands. Following the creation of a renewable energy permitting office within the Department of the Interior at the end of 2020 and the enactment of a renewable energy siting goal, the need for careful guidance of permitting decisions on federal public lands has never been greater.

Riding a long history of bipartisan supportPLREDA facilitates the siting of solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects on public lands. To meet its dual aims of enhancing renewable energy siting and deployment, it boosts funding for conservation, provides critical guardrails for protecting vulnerable ecosystems and important cultural values, and uses a siting framework meant to ensure that projects are sited in locations with the fewest conflicts and impacts possible.

The 2021 version of the bill contains key provisions that provide for:

  • A commitment to enhance natural resource conservation and stewardship via the establishment of a Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund that would support expanding recreational access, conservation and restoration work and other important stewardship activities.
  • Improved access to federal public lands for recreational uses via funds made available for preserving and improving access, including enhancing public access to places that are currently inaccessible or restricted.
  • Establishment of criteria for identifying appropriate areas for renewable energy development using the 2012 Western Solar Plan as a model. Key criteria to be considered include access to transmission lines and likelihood of avoiding or minimizing conflict with wildlife habitat, cultural resources, and other resources and values.
  • Sharing of revenues raised from renewable energy development on public lands in an equitable manner that benefits local communities near new renewable energy projects and supports the efficient administration of permitting requirements.

Environmental conservation and energy development have not traditionally gone hand in hand. With PLREDA, however, lawmakers are embracing the idea that, with careful analysis beginning well before a projected is proposed, the friction between conservation and development can be significantly lessened if not avoided altogether. This attempt at a balanced and forward-looking approach is critical as the current administration and the global community strive to move the country and world to a low-carbon, climate safe future.

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