by Jessica Goad, Daniel J. Weiss, and Richard W. Caperton
Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah—the “Four Corners” states plus their western neighbors—are home to some of the best renewable electricity potential in the country. These states have consistently sunny skies for solar power, wind-blown plains and deserts for turbines, and underground heat perfect for geothermal energy. They also have incredible potential for smaller-scale technologies like rooftop solar panels and energy efficiency improvements.
Our analysis shows these states can house clean energy projects that could realistically provide more than 34 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy over the next two decades. This development could stimulate more than $137 billion in investment in the renewable energy sector, create more than 209,000 direct jobs, and provide electricity for 7 million homes. With supportive federal policies, these renewable electricity goals can be met and surpassed.
Already, the American West leads the way in construction of clean and renewable electricity projects on the ground, spurred forward by policies including state renewable electricity standards and government investments in clean technologies. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study reflects this success, determining that in 2010, “green goods and services” accounted for:
- 49,717 jobs in Arizona
- 338,445 jobs in California
- 72,452 jobs in Colorado
- 17,254 jobs in Nevada
- 21,267 jobs in New Mexico
- 27,948 jobs in Utah
This comes to 527,083 jobs altogether in these six states.
Such projects and employment reinforce westerners’ perspective that renewable energy is a key component of their states’ economic future. A poll this year by the Colorado College “State of the Rockies Project” found that two-thirds of voters polled said “increasing the use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar power will create new jobs” in their states.
And when it came to comparing fossil fuels and renewables, western voters were far more likely to encourage more wind and solar power over coal and oil. In response to the question “which one of the following sources of energy would you want to encourage the use of here in [your state]?”, respondents answered overwhelmingly in favor of clean energy. (see Figure 1)
The clean energy revolution in these western states is already under way, and federal lands offer significant opportunity for continued and increased investment in clean electricity. The West is home to hundreds of millions of acres of federally managed public lands, which are mostly under the purview of the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service. Lands open for energy development do not include millions of acres of national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and other places protected by law.
Much of the energy development on public lands occurs on areas managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. This agency oversees a large amount of the acreage in all six states: about 17 percent of Arizona, 15 percent of California, 12 percent of Colorado, 68 percent of Nevada, 17 percent of New Mexico, and 43 percent of Utah.
Taxpayer-owned lands are already a part of our country’s clean energy revolution. In fact, dozens of solar, wind, and geothermal projects sited on public lands are either currently providing electricity or have been permitted to do so and are ready to be built. A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory elaborated that:
With 5,200 MW of [renewable energy] authorized or approved [on Bureau of Land Management Land], and approximately 8,000 MW of additional 2011 and 2012 high priority projects, the BLM appears to be on track to meet the [Energy Policy Act of 2005] requirement of approving 10,000 MW of RE on public lands by 2012.
This is just the beginning, and many more installations could be responsibly sited and built in these states over the next 20 years, bringing economic development and job creation to the West. Additional policies are essential to turn these opportunities into reality.
To capture the full economic, energy, and public health benefits from this opportunity, the federal government should adopt four essential policies:
- A national clean energy standard of 80 percent by 2035, with 35 percent for renewables
- A clean resources standard for public lands and waters
- Renewable energy zones
- Comprehensive electricity transmission reforms to rehabilitate our aging system
Our report identifies the vast opportunities for renewable energy installations on public lands in the West, but this does not imply that we endorse their deployment on every acre. Some places are not appropriate for energy development, and instead should be managed for multiple uses including hunting, fishing, recreation, wildlife, and other such essential values. Read more