New Model For Solar Development On Public Lands Will Help To ‘Serve The Public Good’

By Jessica Goad

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy released a final plan to speed up the process for getting solar projects built on public lands. The “Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” for solar (PEIS) identifies which areas will and will not be open to development.

It also codifies a radically different way of developing energy projects on public lands by identifying zones that have fewer environmental conflicts and other issues that have slowed progress in the past. In order to steer development to these zones, the plan puts incentives in place like faster permitting, lower fees, and better access to transmission lines.

The solar PEIS has been lauded by a number of different stakeholders, including public utility commissioners, environmentalists, and industry advocates. As former Colorado governor Bill Ritter put it:

Smart planning that identifies the best places for large solar projects will help provide the tools we need to keep building renewables here and across the west — putting Americans to work and protecting conservation values.

And Nancy Pfund of DBL Investors, a venture capital firm, stated that the document “holds the promise of using appropriate federal lands to serve the public good, by providing clean energy at scale to power our economy.”


The plan identifies 17 zones that together cover about 285,000 acres across Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. But development is not restricted solely to these zones. In all, approximately 19 million acres outside of the zones across the states will be made available to solar energy development under a “variance process” that will make it more difficult to build there due to less agency attention and more environmental analyses.

Encouraging the responsible use of our public lands for renewable energy development is highly needed. A recent report from the Center for American Progress called “Using Public Lands for the Public Good” found that 66 percent of the resources from public lands used for electricity are from coal, while only 1 percent is from wind, solar, and geothermal combined. Currently, only one solar project is operating on public lands, although a number of others have been permitted.

One way to continue encouraging renewable energy development on public lands is for the Obama administration to establish a “clean resources standard” to set a target for renewable electricity specifically on those lands. The Center for American Progress has called for a standard of 35 percent by 2035.

Promoting renewables on public lands is critical, especially since Congressional Republicans have focused almost exclusively on promoting oil and gas development on our taxpayer-owned lands and waters. In fact, just yesterday the House debated a plan to drastically increase drilling offshore, even after the Obama administration held two lease sales offshore offering approximately 60 million acres for drilling.

Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.