On Jan. 17, the Biden administration unveiled a draft analysis of a plan that identifies millions of acres of public land as suitable for utility-scale solar development across 11 Western states — and millions more that may be excluded. The proposed plan, called the updated Western Solar Plan, covers Bureau of Land Management land from the Pacific coast to the Rocky Mountains. It revises an Obama-era solar plan released in 2012, and addresses the dual demands to protect resource-rich regions and demarcate public lands that are compatible with large-scale solar.
Under the new guidance, the BLM will earmark broad pockets of land across the West for potential solar development. The agency will mark other regions as unavailable for utility-scale solar due to their cultural, economic or ecological value. By creating this high-level blueprint, the BLM aims to clarify which sites are either open or closed, eliminating ambiguities from the previous plan, and thereby maximizing the efficiency of its permitting process.
Greenlit territories could range from 8 million to 55 million acres in total, with the agency’s preferred plan identifying 22 million acres. The BLM is accepting public comments on these delineations through April 18, and in the coming weeks, conservation groups and clean energy advocates alike will examine the draft analysis more thoroughly at the local level.
Those comments will help the agency finalize the plan. “The next phase of conversation, which is vital, says ‘Okay, now you’re in those bright lines. Is it still the right place?’” said Nada Wolff Culver, principal deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management. “And then we’re always going to need science, we’re always going to need the public, we’re always going to need tribes, we’re always going to need local communities.”
At present, the plan offers five alternative ways to determine which land is designated suitable for development. Parcels may be excluded for a variety of reasons: for instance, sites that are sacred to Indigenous nations, old growth forests, sensitive habitats or scenic byways. Areas marked as promising for future development include previously disturbed lands and areas within 10 miles of existing transmission lines.
A major change from the 2012 version of the plan is that the new draft includes Northwestern states, not only Southwestern ones. The new draft also broadens the excluded areas of tribal interest to include all areas that are subject to memoranda of understanding between the BLM and Indigenous groups. (The agency sent letters to 241 tribal nations, chapters and bands in December 2022, inviting them to participate in consultations; seven tribes have initiated direct contact with the agency since.)
John Burrows, energy and climate policy director at the Wyoming Outdoor Council, praised the plan’s ambitions, which now include his state. “A proactive federal planning process like this is needed; it’s overdue,” Burrows said. “I think it’s a good thing that’s happening here.”
“I think it’s a good thing that’s happening here.”
Without that kind of planning, it’s easy for development to go awry. In 2019, Sweetwater Solar, the developer of Wyoming’s first utility-scale solar project on public lands, failed to adequately assess the migratory patterns of local wildlife. The company constructed a nearly 100-megawatt facility across a primary pronghorn migration corridor. Thousands of the ungulates were forced off their natural migration path and onto the highway, and other regions along the corridor remain the subject of continued debate.
The situation handed residents, in a state that relies heavily on coal and natural gas, another reason to be skeptical of renewable energy. In the years since, the plummeting price and improved viability of solar has mitigated some of these concerns, but the pressure remains for future developers to account for the interests of residents and wildlife.
The BLM determined, In partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, that only 700,000 acres of the 8 to 55 million acres available for solar projects will need to be developed to hit the Biden administration’s target of reaching a 100% carbon-free energy sector by 2030. In tandem with the updated Western Solar Plan, the BLM also announced progress on establishing large-scale solar projects in Nevada, Arizona and California that could collectively produce 1,700 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 515,423 homes.
After the public comment period closes, the BLM will revise the Western Solar Plan and expects to release a final version before the end of the year. Burrows said that his team will be taking a detailed look at the Wyoming maps in the coming weeks. “We’ve got our work cut for us,” he said. “And we’ve got 90 days to do it.”
Erin X. Wong is an editorial fellow at High Country News,