Development on Public Lands Boosts Renewable Energy Contributions to National Grid

DOE this week broke ground on what will become the federal government’s largest wind energy facility. Five 2.3-megawatt wind turbines on 1,500 acres of government-owned property east of the department’s Pantex defense facility in the Texas panhandle will provide an estimated 47 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy annually.

The project boasts huge energy and environmental benefits, including meeting at least 65 percent of Pantex’s annual electricity needs and reducing CO2 emissions by more than 35,000 metric tons per year (a drop equivalent to removing 7,200 cars from the road each year or planting more than 850,000 trees).

On a larger scale, it also underscores the growth of renewable energy facilities and production on public lands. The federal government has undertaken a critical role in the development of new energy sources that can reduce our dependence on finite fossil fuel sources, provide new jobs and wide economic benefits, and offer cleaner alternatives that leave a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

It’s a role that dates back decades, to the ’30s and ’40s when the federal government was underwriting huge hydroelectric projects through initiatives like the Tennessee River Valley Authority.

But the explosion over more recent years of a new wave of renewable energy technologies – particularly wind and solar – has really magnified the public sector’s profile as a driver of innovation and growth. State and federal governments have not only “talked the talk” with policies that offer tax advantages and funding incentives for private sector development of renewable energy projects, but have “walked the walk” by opening up public lands to the same kinds of projects.

For example, under the Bush administration, an environmental impact statement (EIS) completed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in 2005 offered an analysis of the development of wind energy projects on public lands in the West. The EIS has ultimately led to bureau approval of wind energy projects in Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada. More than 40 wind energy development applications on public lands with a potential capacity of over 7,500 megawatts are pending.

Last year, Interior established 17 new “solar energy zones” on 285,000 acres in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico as a means of encouraging faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands.

The Obama administration four years ago set a goal of authorizing the construction on federal lands renewable energy projects capable of producing 10,000 megawatts. That goal was reached last October with the approval of the 1,000-turbine, 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Wyoming, prompting the administration in June to call projects that can produce an additional 10,000 megawatts on public lands by 2020. Once the projects are completed, the 20,000 megawatts will be enough to power 6 million homes.

At a clean energy summit in Nevada this week, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cited the final approval this week of the Casa Diablo geothermal electricity project on public and private lands near the state’s Mammoth Lakes as showing the BLM’s willingness cooperate with wind, solar and geothermal energy developers. The project, which will power some 36,000 homes, is the latest of 47 “utility-grade” solar, wind and geothermal facilities authorized on public lands, compared to none in 2008.

Reaching the 20,000-megawatt goal by 2020 does not come without big challenges. Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) set by many states requiring a certain percentage of power needs be met by renewable energy must be maintained. The nation’s aging power grid must be upgraded.

However, the impressive growth of renewable energy capacity on public lands to date underscores the potential for even more. Clean energy advocates, who saw renewable-based production grow to more than 13 percent of the nation’s electricity last year, can be encouraged by the progress being made by the public sector in helping meet the nation’s energy challenges.

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