US rolls out plan to green-light close to 30GW of solar plant on federal lands

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to green-light construction of 39 utility-scale solar projects totalling more than 29GW of plant capacity on federal lands in six western states through third quarter 2025, the agency has informed Congress.

“The demand for renewable energy has never been greater,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, asserting that cost-effectiveness, technological advances, and “tremendous economic potential” make those projects a promising path for diversifying the national energy portfolio, combatting climate change, and investing in communities.

The Department of Interior (DoI), which oversees BLM, this week announced a series of steps designed to streamline infrastructure permitting coordination and facilitate environmental reviews to “responsibly support” development of a minimum 25GW of new geothermal, solar, and wind capacity on federal lands between fiscal years 2021 and 2025.

Congress established that mandate in the bipartisan Energy Act of 2020, the first comprehensive update to US energy policies in 13 years. The law instructs DoI to maintain oversight of this development process by coordinating with other executive branch agencies and report progress to lawmakers each year.

In fiscal year 2021, which runs from 1 October–30 September 2022, BLM has so far authorised or facilitated 12 projects totalling 2.9GW, a 35% increase from the prior year. Except for 100MW of geothermal, the balance was solar.

Solar also represents the great majority of “priority” renewables projects that are presently undergoing environmental reviews, with the agency processing 28 applicant-led proposals for solar projects and 11 bureau-initiated lease offerings for so-called ‘solar energy zones’ in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah.

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Looking ahead, DoI forecasts that BLM in fiscal year 2022 will permit 3.6GW of capacity, in 2023 5.6GW, in 2024 13.5GW, and in 2025 6.9GW.

BLM is processing four applications for wind power projects in California, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming that have a 2.04GW combined potential capacity: 1GW in 2023 and 1.04GW in2024.

The agency is also reviewing applications for five geothermal projects totalling 188MW in Nevada and Utah, and six transmission lines (gen-tie) that will link proposed renewable energy projects on lands in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah that are not owned by the federal government. These will have about 1.73GW of combined carrying capacity.

Officials there said they are “prioritising” four proposed major transmission projects now undergoing environmental review. These are Greenlink North and Greenlink West, TransCanyon Cross-Tie and SunZia, which has been in development for more than a decade.

BLM said it anticipates potential permitting decisions for Greenlink West and SunZia in 2023 and Greenlink North and TransCanyon Cross-Tie in 2024.

The Greenlink projects are fully owned by NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate. They would be located entirely within Nevada. Another Berkshire unit and Pinnacle West, a utility holding company, each own 50% of TransCanyon Cross-Tie, which would link Nevada and Utah.

SunZia is an up-to-4.5GW capacity merchant transmission project that would link solar and wind projects in New Mexico and Arizona with load centres there and further west in California.

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