Today, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a notice of intent to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) to modify and update its 2012 Western Solar Plan (“2012 Plan”) and make necessary resource management plan (RMP) amendments. The notice initiated a 60-day scoping period during which BLM will accept public comment on the PEIS and potential RMP amendments.
The 2012 Plan established where and how utility-scale solar energy development could occur on BLM-managed lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Specifically, the 2012 Plan amended RMPs in these states to exclude some lands from solar development, identify lands where solar development would be prioritized (solar energy zones or “SEZs”), and establish a process for development outside of SEZs (in “variance areas”).
The PEIS will evaluate potential modifications to improve and expand the 2012 Plan. In the notice of intent, BLM explained that the 2012 Plan facilitated solar development applications in areas of flat land and direct sunlight and in areas without high-value resources. Solar developers, however, have expressed interest in development in areas allocated as exclusion areas based on exclusion criteria for slope or solar insolation values. Accordingly, BLM now seeks to update the 2012 Plan.
BLM particularly has identified these objectives of the planning process:
- To focus the BLM’s utility-scale solar energy planning on resource management on BLM-administered lands rather than specifying technology-based criteria for solar development on public lands;
- To expand the solar program to additional states;
- To increase opportunities for renewable energy development in priority and variance areas; and
- To develop appropriate criteria to exclude high-value resource areas from renewable energy development.
The PEIS also may consider land use allocation modifications related to other renewable energy development types, such as wind energy.
In its notice, BLM explained that it would consider alternatives in the PEIS that would modify these aspects of the 2012 Plan:
- Study area. BLM will consider at least one alternative that would expand BLM’s solar program to portions of additional states, which may include Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. BLM will also consider whether to include in the PEIS study area lands covered by the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan in California and the Restoration Design Energy Project in Arizona.
- Exclusion criteria. BLM will consider whether to eliminate two exclusion categories and modify the remaining exclusion categories established in the 2012 Plan. Particularly, BLM will consider eliminating exclusion criteria 1 (excluding development in locations with slopes greater than five percent) and 2 (excluding development where insolation values are below 6.5 kWh/m2/day).
- Land use allocations. BLM will consider at least one alternative that would adjust existing SEZs, variance areas, and exclusion areas. BLM would consider establishing new SEZs, variance areas, and exclusion areas, including in states not covered by the 2012 Plan.
- Variance process. BLM will consider modifications to the variance process to focus review and improve efficiency. These potential modifications follow recent BLM’s release of an Instruction Memorandum aimed at enhancing consistency and workflow efficiency in the variance process. Notably, BLM will consider whether to incorporate variance procedures in means other than the PEIS, such as regulation or policy. BLM will also consider whether the purpose of the variance process is being met through other mechanisms, such as site-specific environmental review and BLM’s review of right-of-way applications, and therefore whether to continue the variance process.
- Definition of utility-scale. BLM may revise the definition of “utility-scale” set forth in the 2012 Plan, which is any project capable of generating 20 or more megawatts (MW) of electricity that is delivered into the electricity transmission grid.
- Promoting development in SEZs. BLM will consider incentives to promote development in SEZs.
BLM will hold two virtual and 12 in-person public meetings as part of the scoping process. BLM has requested that the public submit comments by February 6, 2023, via its eplanning site.
Please contact Katie Schroder with questions about the PEIS or how to effectively participate in the scoping process.