Opening Up the West to Renewables

April 30, 2003

Public lands in the West have great potential for power production from renewable energy, study shows

People in the western United States should soon be able to see more than just beautiful natural vistas. They might also be able to watch clean, renewable energy resourcessuch as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermalbeing developed on western public lands, thanks to an important new study conducted by FEMP in partnership with the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The studyAssessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on Public Landsshows there is high potential for the development of one or more renewable energy resources in 11 western states, and high potential for development of three or more renewable resources in seven states (see the table).

Western U.S. BLM Planning Units with High Potential for the Development of Three or More Renewable Energy Sources
Planning Unit Field Office State CSP PV Wind Biomass Geothermal
Las Cruces Las Cruces NM " " " " "
Safford Safford AZ " " " "
Carson City Carson City NV " " "
Elko Elko NV " " "
Fillmore Fillmore UT " " "
Arizona Strip Arizona Strip AZ " "
Phoenix Phoenix AZ " " " "
Barstow Barstow CA " " "

El Centro El Centro CA " "
" "
Palm Springs-South Coast Palm Springs CA " " "

Ridgecrest Ridgecrest CA
" "
Battle Mountain Battle Mountain NV " "

Las Vegas Las Vegas NV " " "

Winnemucca Winnemucca NV " "

Albuquerque Albuquerque NM
" " "
Socorro Socorro NM " "
Lakeview Lakeview OR

" " "
Cedar City Cedar City UT " "

Salt Lake Salt Lake UT " " "

Wenatchee Wenatchee WA

" " "

FEMP staff at DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) partnered with BLM on the study, which was conducted in support of BLM's National Energy Policy Implementation Plan. Commenting on the study, Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, said, "Our public land managers will be able to use this information as a tool for planning purposes as we work to increase our domestic sources of renewable energy. By working in partnership with DOE to locate and identify sources of renewable energy on public lands, we maximize our efforts in implementing the President's National Energy Policy."

In his National Energy Policy, of May 2001, the President directed the Departments of Energy and the Interior to identify and evaluate renewable energy resources on public lands, as well as any limitations to access to those resources by private energy developers. BLM will use the results of the study to prioritize land-use planning activities and increase opportunities for the development and use of renewable resources.

As an indication of the level of interest, the draft version of the assessment report and related industry meetings in 2002 resulted in nearly 40 applications from developers to BLM field offices for wind technology development and testing on western public lands; in contrast, in the 10 years before 2002, no more than five applications had been received for wind development.

Photo of wind turbines near Arlington, Wyoming.

Wind energy will be part of the development of renewable resources on public lands; 40 percent of the electricity produced by these 600-kilowatt turbinespart of a 40-megawatt project near Arlington, Wyomingis being purchased by the DOE's Bonneville PowerAdministration. (photo courtesy of Tom Hall, DOE)

The potential for wind power production has been conservatively estimated at more than 2,000 megawatts, if most new BLM grants result in wind projects. This is enough energy for 250,000 average U.S. households.

Glenn Hamer, Executive Director of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said, "We're very excited about what BLM and the Department of the Interior are doing in terms of increasing renewable production on Federal land."

For this study, BLM requested technical assistance and support from DOE through NREL to accomplish four tasks requested by BLM Director Kathleen Clarke: (1)�gather available information on the potential for renewable energy, (2)�develop appropriate screening criteria, (3)�process data identifying broad geographical areas for renewable energy development, and (4)�provide a final report on high-potential areas for inclusion in a Renewable Energy Action Plan.

The BLM/NREL team used Geographic Information System (GIS) data to analyze and assess the potential for concentrating solar power (CSP), photovoltaics (PV), wind, and biomass resources and technologies on public lands. BLM, NREL, and several industry representatives jointly developed screening criteria for each renewable resource to produce GIS-based maps and analyses. The team was able to identify the top 25 BLM planning units whose areas have the highest potential for CSP, PV, wind, and biomass development.

Photo of Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary, Department of the Interior, and Admiral Richard Truly, Director, NREL.

Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary, Department of the Interior, announces the results of the studyAssessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on Public Landsat DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Admiral Richard Truly, Director, NREL is seated to the right.

The team also identified high-potential geothermal energy sites. This part of the assessment took advantage of BLM's knowledge of, and experience with, geothermal resources in seven western states. BLM experts were able to identify 35 "top-pick" sites and 18 planning units in six states as having high potential for near-term development of geothermal resources. (See table)

NREL provided information and guidance on renewable energy technology development, renewable energy resource potential assessment, GIS mapping of the analysis and results, and renewable energy system analysis. The collaborative study also resulted in the development of a Memorandum of Understanding among BLM's National Science and Technology Center, the DOE's Golden Field Office, and NREL for continued cooperation in assessing and analyzing renewable energy resources.

While developing the report, staff from DOE Headquarters, NREL, and DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory met with representatives of BLM and the renewable energy industry. Discussions were held on the availability of resource information, technology considerations, and siting criteria relevant to various renewable energy resources.

Because data was not readily available, neither hydropower nor the State of Alaska were included in the BLM/NREL study. Future studies including hydro and Alaska could, therefore, indicate even greater potential for the development of renewable resources.

Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said, "The Department of Energy is pleased to provide the technical renewable energy expertise of our national Laboratories to the Bureau of Land Management. Federal agencies can lead by example to improve America's energy security by helping renewable industries bring energy resources to market."

The current BLM/NREL assessment resulted in the following findings:

  • Sixty-three BLM planning units in 11 western states have high potential for power production from one or more renewable energy sources.
  • Twenty BLM planning units in seven western states have high potential for power production from three or more renewable energy sources.

The table lists BLM planning units identified in the study with high potential for the development of three or more renewable energy resources for power production. BLM can use this information to prioritize land-use planning activities and determine the best order in which to prepare or amend land-use plans.

Most uses of renewable energy on public lands can be accommodated by current BLM land-use plans, and industry may apply for authorization to develop renewable resources under the appropriate authority at any time. These land-use plans identify wilderness areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and other designated management areas where restrictions may apply to certain uses. However, new land-use plans specifically addressing renewable energy development could accelerate the processing of future applications for such development projects.

Reiterating the Interior Department's commitment to increased renewable energy development earlier this year, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said, "We must explore ways to better capture the sun's light, the sky's winds, the land's bounty, and the earth's heat to provide energy security for America's families."

The study can be downloaded from the FEMP Web site or For more information, please contact Mike Kirby, Associate Director, BLM National Science and Technology Center, at 303-236-6491 or, or Doug Dahle, Senior Program Manager, NREL FEMP, Energy and Environmental Applications Office, at 303-384-7513 or