Report: Huge economic potential for renewables in the West

Source: By Scott Streater, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Trump administration could give an economic boost to Western communities by doubling down on recent efforts to increase renewable energy development, according to an in-depth analysis of the financial benefits of clean energy on public lands.

The report, which claims to be the first to evaluate the “cumulative economic benefits” of commercial-scale renewables development on public lands, found that the construction and operation of renewable energy projects on federal lands have contributed $13 billion to the economy since 1996.

As of 2019, there are 96 utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects on public lands, producing a total of 5,041 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 2.1 million homes, according to the report, conducted by the Yale University Center for Business and the Environment and the Wilderness Society.

And more are on the way, the report says.

“The [Bureau of Land Management] has permitted over a dozen additional projects on public lands that will add thousands of megawatts of additional generation capacity when they are built,” the report says.

But this represents only 5% of the total installed solar, wind and geothermal power nationwide, it says, “so there is significant opportunity for growth.”

“To move toward a more stable economy, cleaner environment and healthier communities, we need to free ourselves from the boom-bust cycles and widespread contamination of our air, water and climate caused by fossil fuel production,” Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Daue co-authored the report with Nikki Springer, director of research, strategy and programs for the Renewable Thermal Alliance and a research fellow at Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment.

“Our country should be investing in responsible renewable energy development on public lands, rather than doubling down on the fossil fuel economy,” Daue added.

The report coincides with the Trump administration’s recent approvals of several major renewable energy projects on federal lands.

The Interior Department this month approved the 690-MW Gemini Solar Project on 7,000 acres of federal lands northeast of Las Vegas. Once built, it will have the capacity to power about 260,000 homes and businesses and would rank among the world’s largest power-producing solar plants (E&E News PM, May 11).

BLM last month also approved the Haiwee geothermal leasing plan opening 22,800 acres of Southern California desert to commercial-scale geothermal power exploration and development (Greenwire, April 23). The bureau estimates that the plan could spur $1 billion in geothermal power projects capable of producing enough electricity for about 117,000 homes and businesses.

Conservation groups and congressional Democrats have criticized Trump’s focus on oil and gas drilling and mining on federal lands.

But the Haiwee geothermal and Gemini solar projects are among a handful of major renewable energy projects that the Trump administration has prioritized approving by year’s end. The administration views the project approvals as a sign that its “energy dominance” campaign does include renewables (Greenwire, Jan. 2).

The Trump administration has also advanced a number of utility-scale solar and wind projects on Native American tribal lands.

But these efforts pale in comparison with the Obama administration, which over eight years approved 60 large-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects that would have the capacity to produce 15,500 MW of electricity — enough to power about 5.1 million homes.

Indeed, the latest report notes that “progress on implementation has slowed drastically in recent years.”

To help increase renewables, the report recommends that the Trump administration fully fund Interior and BLM renewable energy programs, and focus permitting new projects “in appropriate areas” that have high renewable energy potential and low natural resource conflicts.

It also recommends using brownfields by redeveloping “old mines, landfills, and other contaminated sites with solar, wind, and geothermal energy.” And it calls on Congress to approve legislation promoting renewable energy development, such as the bipartisan “Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act,” sponsored by Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Mike Levin (D-Calif.).