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Federal Land Agency Lags on Solar Development Approvals Across Southwest U.S.

June 01, 2020
Karl Cates and Seth Feaster and Dennis Wamsted
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Key Findings

Over 99% of more than 100 million acres remains off-limits to utility-scale buildout; cumbersome and inconsistent barriers persist.

Of the more than 100 million acres the BLM manages in the region—which spans Arizona and New Mexico and parts of California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah—it has set aside only 276,000 acres, or less than 0.25% of the total, for utility-scale development under its Solar Energy Zone (SEZ) policy, although almost 20 million additional acres could be eligible under variance permits.

Executive Summary

This report describes how the 372MW Shiprock Solar project, one of many utilityscale projects being proposed in the Four Corners area, seems a natural fit: It would take advantage of strong local solar resources and available transmission infrastructure, and offer job opportunities for the skilled workforce being left behind by the region’s fast-fading coal-fired power-generation industry. It details also how plans for the 690MW Gemini Solar Project in Nevada, which will be the largest utility-scale solar project in U.S. history, recently were approved by the BLM in an exemplary model of streamlined bureaucratic decision-making.

The history of the BLM suggests that many development decisions are shaped by sometimes outdated attitudes and competence levels at state and field offices where utility-scale renewable energy isn’t seen yet for the robust industry it is. Stronger leadership from above would help level the playing field for utility-scale renewable energy development on BLM lands.

The issue can be seen as increasingly nonpartisan, as can be seen in policy action by the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations alike. Yet the BLM for the most part remains an agency that is behind the curve on responsible buildout of these publicly owned resources, which are ripe for development and which would bring local economic benefits while bolstering national energy security.

Karl Cates

Former IEEFA Transition Policy Analyst Karl Cates has been an editor for Bloomberg LP, an editor for the New York Times, and a consultant to the Treasury Department-sanctioned community development financial institution (CDFI) industry.

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Seth Feaster

Seth Feaster is an Energy Data Analyst whose work focuses on the coal industry and the U.S. power sector.

Before joining IEEFA, he created visual presentations at the New York Times for 25 years with a focus on complex financial and energy data; he also worked at The Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

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Dennis Wamsted

At IEEFA, Dennis Wamsted focuses on the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels to green generation resources, focusing particularly on the electric power sector.

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