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How Clean Energy Projects on Public Land Will Power 3 Million Homes

The Obama administration is speeding up clean energy development, but must balance the interests of conservationists and developers.

Not so long ago, American energy policy might have included carbon-busting endeavors like cap-and-trade. But now, politicians’ focus has turned to clean energy, which Congress isn’t exactly rushing to support. In last week’s State of the Union, President Obama pointed out that his administration was doing what it could without Congress. The Navy is committed to ramping up clean energy. And Obama had directed his administration to facilitate the development of clean energy on public lands—enough to power 3 million homes.

That promise isn’t quite as ambitious as it sounds: In 2005, a Republican Congress passed a bill requiring 10,000 megawatts of clean energy to go on public lands by 2015. But the Obama administration has been hustling to meet that goal, which it moved up by three years, to the end of 2012. The Interior Department oversees public lands, and by 2009, it had approved zero megawatts of solar projects. Since then, the department has approved more than 5,500 megawatts of solar projects, plus a handful of wind and geothermal efforts. In 2012, Interior is prioritizing projects that would provide 7,000 megawatts of energy, including a gigantic wind installation in Wyoming that’s rated at 3,000 megawatts. If these projects move along on schedule, the Obama administration will meet its self-imposed deadline and the 3-million-home mark the president touted last week.

Any use of public land, though, has to balance the preferences of many interested parties, which include conservationists, hikers, hunters, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, energy developers, and neighbors. Renewable energy is no exception. Republicans in Congress dinged the administration in 2011 for not making enough public lands available to renewable energy development. (They’ve also been working on lumping in increased oil and gas development on public lands with renewable energy development.) Environmental groups generally support renewable energy development but have been fighting to keep the most sensitive public land out of circulation and to come up with a system that balances development with conservation.

Solar projects, for instance, do well in deserts but require developers to level the land and clear it of vegetation. In the past few years, scientists have started paying closer attention to deserts’ value: capturing carbon and fixing nitrogen. They’re hard to restore once they’ve been damaged, and like any development project, wind and solar installations can also threaten wildlife and plants.

In the beginning of the current push, projects the Obama administration started approving on public lands were often too far along for changes to made if environmental concerns came up. “We've learned important lessons, including that permitting processes need to engage stakeholders earlier in the process,” says Chase Huntley, renewable energy policy director for the Wilderness Society. “The further down the road the project is, the harder it is to make change.”

One of the most visible fights between environmentalists and clean energy developers was over a solar project that infringed on the habitat of desert tortoises. “When there's a site that's problematic, the choices essentially are: move it to somewhere better, redesign it within the project area, or if neither of those are possible, offset the impacts via additional mitigation,” says Brendan Cummings, who directs the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity, which pushed to protect the tortoises. In this case the developer, BrightSource, agreed to provide additional resources to offset the impact its project would have on the tortoise habitat. But now, Cummings says, that sort of mitigation is less likely to be necessary: The administration and the developers are making better choices about where to site projects and how to design them.

“Renewable projects will have a negative impact on the place they're built on,” says Cummings. “Getting the size of land you need that's under one owner—it's usually much easier to go to public land than to private land.” But those impacts, he says, are counterbalanced by the advantages of renewable energy. Ultimately, pushing back climate change will help preserve the habitats of species all around the world, not just in the tracts of land disturbed by renewable projects.

Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management

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