Success in Exploring Expanded Development of Wind Energy on BLM Public Lands

March 7, 2007

The National Energy Policy Report (May 2001) included a recommendation to increase the use of renewable and alternative energy on the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public lands. In response to the directive, BLM developed a Renewable Energy Action Plan, and in January 2002 requested the partnership and technical support of the Department of Energy's Office Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to conduct a renewable energy resource assessment of BLM federal lands in the Western U.S. The 11 states included in the study were Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, encompassing more than 160 million acres.

Photo of the cover of final report Assessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on Public Lands.
 

The assessment used geographic information system (GIS) analysis techniques to identify BLM lands with high potential for development of wind, solar, and biomass energy production systems. NREL and BLM staff met initially to establish GIS-based land exclusion criteria as overlays of the databases of renewable resources and BLM lands. BLM staff, NREL technology experts, and Denver area renewable industry developers mutually identified and prioritized criteria that would be used to evaluate the technical and economic feasibility of renewable energy production facilities.

A draft of the study, funded by the Federal Energy Management Program, was produced in May 2002, and was posted on the BLM Web site for a 60-day public comment period. During that comment period, BLM received a dozen wind industry land use permit applications for wind energy resource monitoring and potential wind energy facility development. This was a surprising indicator that wind project development on federal lands was a real opportunity, after years of low industry interest due to the bureaucratic and costly delays associated with public versus private land development.

As stewards of public land use management, BLM reacted responsively, developing policies to guide the processing of wind industry applications, since wind energy was not part of current BLM Land Use or Resource Management Plans. Within five months, BLM used existing right-of-way (ROW) statutes and regulations to develop a draft policy, which was provided for review and comment to industry professionals, wind trade association representatives, and national environmental organizations. In October 2002, the BLM Interim Wind Energy Development Policy was issued as Instruction Memorandum No. 2003-020, which can be found on the BLM Web site. Issuance of this policy was the first major step to proactively address renewable industry access limitations for development on federal lands.

BLM continued to receive numerous wind industry ROW applications for wind resource monitoring to install meteorological towers on BLM lands (1,000 to 10,000 acre parcels) to confirm wind resources as the first of two phases of wind development in the BLM Wind Development Policy. Meanwhile, NREL and BLM published the final report, Assessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on Public Lands, in February 2003. The study identified the top 25 BLM planning units with the highest potential for wind, solar, and biomass energy development. Results provided BLM with information to prioritize planning, budgeting, and funding for Land Use and Resource Management Plan amendments or revisions that incorporate renewable energy development on public lands.

By mid-2003, BLM had received more than 60 wind industry ROW applications for wind resource testing. BLM had also begun the next step of reviewing the first few ROW applications that had already attained wind resource data confirming wind energy economic feasibility for wind energy power production development. A key deterrent for wind development on federal lands is the cost of complying with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). For wind farm development involving significant land disturbance during construction, NEPA requires the preparation of an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), subject to federal agency approval, before federal notice to proceed. Preparation, public hearings, and approval of an EIS can cost between $1.5 and $2 million and can take 1.5 to 2 years, primarily at the expense of the wind project developer. Additionally, when BLM proposes land use or resource plan amendments for new land use, they are required to develop a Programmatic EIS to communicate the general (not site-specific) environmental impacts.

Photo of the cover of the Wind Programmatic EIS (PEIS)
 

To address both of these wind energy development issues, BLM initiated the development of a Wind Programmatic EIS (PEIS) in the fall of 2003 for BLM lands in the 11 Western states included in the renewable resource assessment. To develop the Wind PEIS, BLM partnered with and funded the expertise of Argonne National Laboratory to help with the EIS process and documentation development, and NREL to provide wind technology expertise and development scenario analysis. The draft PEIS used NREL GIS mapping and wind development system modeling to identify economically-feasible land wind development projects for the period of 2005 to 2025. GIS maps of all BLM lands indicating high potential areas were incorporated to communicate the proximity of potential wind development opportunities.

The final Wind PEIS, issued in June 2005, conservatively projected that more than 3,200 megawatts (MW) could be developed on BLM lands by 2025. A principal outcome of the Wind PEIS was the development of best management practices, which address wind energy siting, construction, and operations mitigation activities to reduce adverse environmental impacts. These best management practices are being incorporated into the BLM Wind Energy Development Policy as additional guidance for BLM field office for NEPA actions in wind development ROW applications. The final Wind PEIS can be found at windeis.anl.gov.

In advance of the final Wind PEIS, BLM conducted a pilot project to demonstrate the benefit of using the Wind PEIS as part of a Resource Management Plan (RMP) revision for the Ukiah, California planning unit. BLM tasked and funded NREL to conduct analysis to identify the wind energy development potential (in terms of MW production) for BLM California State and Ukiah field office selected land parcels. The wind energy projections and Wind PEIS were incorporated into the BLM Ukiah RMP. BLM is now seeking public comments on changes in current land uses, including wind energy development.

BLM has demonstrated leadership in addressing the National Energy Policy objective to evaluate renewable industry access limitations, helping to increase the wind industry interest and commitment toward wind energy development on federal lands. After successfully incorporating wind energy as a land use option in RMPs and the Wind PEIS best management practices into BLM's Wind Energy Development Policy, it is anticipated that ROW grant applications for wind energy development on BLM public lands are more streamlined, and likely will require only Environmental Assessment (EA) approval before notice to proceed with development. An EA is significantly less costly to developers (estimated at $200,000 and approval within 6 months) and reduces the burden on BLM field offices resources for processing and approving wind energy development project applications. BLM is now positioned to incorporate wind energy land use in more than 50 BLM RMP amendments planned in the next few years.

BLM has also processed and approved a few wind energy development ROW applications. With the Energy Policy Act of 2005 reinstating the Production Tax Credit for wind projects, wind farm development will proceed with nearly 1,000 MW of wind energy on BLM public lands in the next two years.

For more information please contact Doug Dahle of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory at douglas_dahle@nrel.gov or 303-384-7513 or Ray Brady of the Bureau of Land Management at ray_brady@blm.gov or 202-452-7773.