Biden Solar Plan Thwarts Clean Energy Projects, Industry Warns – Bloomberg Law

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Environmental restrictions in the Biden administration’s draft plan to open up public lands for solar development could make many proposed projects impossible to build, developers and some environmental groups have told federal officials.

The Bureau of Land Management’s preferred alternative to updating the 2012 Western Solar Plan road map would open up 22 million acres for solar energy development across 11 states.

But proposed exclusion zones, setbacks, and project design criteria aimed at protecting wildlife and the desert landscape would undermine the goals of the agency’s updates, developers said in comment letters shared with Bloomberg Law.

The plan “presents a significant risk to the rapid deployment of solar energy in the Western United States, in direct conflict with the policies and actions of the federal government to deploy clean energy and cut carbon and air pollution,” EDF Renewables, a French energy company with projects in the US, told the land bureau.

If the updates are finalized as drafted, they could eliminate up to 96% of the company’s existing project pipeline on BLM lands, representing the elimination of up to 7 gigawatts of solar power, the company said. Without significant changes, the plan “would eliminate all future development and investment by EDFR on federal land.”

One member of the Solar Energy Industries Association would see 10 out of 12 of their pending projects in Arizona and Nevada excluded, and “many other developers are in a similar situation,” the industry association said in comments.

Another company said all of its planned solar projects totaling more than 3,000 megawatts in Nevada would be “undevelopable” under the plan. The company showed a map of a completed solar project in California—under a separate framework backed by the land bureau—that would’ve been blocked under the plan’s proposed criteria.

The company requested anonymity because its comment letter wasn’t public.

The comments on the solar program’s draft programmatic environmental impact statement reflect ongoing tensions over how to build large-scale solar across vast areas of the West without trampling over sensitive desert habitats.

The Biden administration has made it a top priority to open up public lands for renewable energy development, including solar, wind, geothermal, and the long-range transmission lines that connect those plants to the grid.

The land bureau finalized a rule in April to lower leasing fees by 80% for wind and solar energy developers working within priority energy development zones, including the Western Solar Plan and areas of California designated by the 2016 Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

BLM declined to comment for this story.

Conserving Resources

The Interior Department has permitted more than 25 gigawatts of clean energy projects—dozens of solar, wind, and geothermal projects, as well as transmission lines, officials said last month. The permitted projects could power more than 12 million homes.

But the administration has also heard from conservation groups who fear widespread industrialization of fragile desert landscapes. The department has weighed protections for endangered species around proposed lithium mines and geothermal energy sites, delaying developers who say they can build safely.

The Western Solar Plan’s draft environmental plan issued in January includes 21 resource-based exclusions. The exclusions would prohibit development on known occupied habitats of threatened and endangered species, on desert tortoise sites, on lands known to be big game migratory corridors and winter ranges, and on recreation areas, old growth forests and other landscapes.

The plan would exclude areas of critical environmental concern, patches of land that anyone can nominate for protection.

Many of the exclusions are unmapped or partially mapped by the BLM, leaving developers unsure whether their project would be barred. The draft plan is unclear on whether already proposed projects would have to follow the new rules.

The plan also calls for developers to meet hundreds of design features, including a 200-foot buffer for all desert washes, including ephemeral washes that riddle the West.

The proposals are welcome news to conservation groups alarmed by the proliferation of large-scale solar.

“Often, these solar applications will come barraging in and they’re on a really good habitat and we don’t have much of an opportunity to say, maybe that area needs to be protected,” said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. The Nevada-based organization has proposed two areas of critical environmental concern to prevent solar development.

“They’re giving us another opportunity to at least try to protect it,” Emmerich said.

Too Many Barriers

But developers and clean energy advocacy groups say the exclusions go too far.

“Not only does this create extreme development uncertainty, but the occupied habitat exclusion in particular, we believe, would have the impact of eliminating or severely impeding development on millions of acres marked as open for development,” SEIA wrote. The American Clean Power Association and the Large Scale Solar Association filed similar comments.

Exclusions for desert tortoises alone would eliminate roughly 40 proposed solar projects, said Peter Weiner, a partner with Cox Castle who represents solar developers.

“Everybody wants renewable energy—only not here and not there and not there,” Weiner said. “You’re sending conflicting messages, you say you want renewable energy, but if you put out a draft like you put out, it causes concerns that you really don’t want renewable energy because you’re putting so many barriers in the way.”

Some environmental groups have joined the industry to call for the BLM to make changes to the plan.

Five solar developers joined four nonprofits focused on sustainability—Wilderness Society, Pew Charitable Trusts, Natural Resources Defense Council, and National Audubon Society—to press BLM to develop better mapping and incentives to prioritize degraded land near transmission lines.

The letter urged BLM to roll back the occupied habitat exclusion and maintain the existing process of allowing projects to move forward with Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

“BLM’s approval of projects using that process has been established to be effective, and does not add substantial time to the permitting process,” the groups wrote.

BLM has said it hopes the plan will be fully developed by October, with a record of decision and final resource management plan by December.

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