The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

In Arizona, 4.8 million acres of federal land could be available for solar development

By Mark Brodie
Published: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 12:14pm
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2024 - 1:10pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (12.13 MB)

The Bureau of Land Management will be hosting a public meeting in Yuma Thursday night on the agency’s Western Solar Plan. The Biden Administration released it last month and the public comment period runs through mid-April.

The BLM created the first solar plan in 2012, and officials say they’re updating it now to reflect several changes over those dozen years — including developments in technology, changes in the industry and in the demand for solar, as well as the increased emphasis in the current administration on transitioning to more renewable energy. The plan maps out which public lands could potentially be sites for utility-scale solar development, and which are off limits from the start. In Arizona, the plan lists around 4.8 million acres as potentially available and more than 7.2 million acres as not suitable for solar.

The Show spoke with Nada Wolff Culver, principal deputy director at the Bureau of Land Management, more about this.

Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project
BLM Nevada
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Tonopah, Nevada, is a BLM-approved renewable energy installation.

MARK BRODIE: How significant are the changes now relative to what this plan looked like 12 years ago?

NADA WOLFF CULVER: So some of the most important changes and most apparent will be in the original plan — the 2012 plan — applied to six southwestern states. And since that time, we’ve seen the demand increase across the West, across all Western states. So this plan will now apply to all 11 Western states.

In addition, we are really taking a hard look at what are the role of the public lands, how much should the public lands and can they contribute to meeting our renewable energy goals as a country? That’s one of the biggest changes we’re making, is we’re analyzing based on what is the contribution the public lands should be making for utility scale solar.

And that’s because, again, these lands are managed for multiple use for all Americans. And it’s very important that they do their part on renewable energy, but they also play an incredibly important role for people, be it people who are making a living ranching or people who enjoy them for recreation or other types of energy development beyond solar. They just play a huge role in so many people’s lives and we want to make sure we are balancing that.

BRODIE: So how do you try to achieve that balance? Because as you say, BLM land is used for a lot of different uses. But if you put a solar energy field on that land, a lot of those other uses aren’t really available anymore.

WOLFF CULVER: Yeah. So I think what we’re trying to do is come up first with this what’s needed. And then what we learned in the last 12 years, as you note, is what’s important is to have some bright lines. What lands are just not suitable for this type of industrial solar development? And then leaving it more open to what lands might be available. So that’s how this plan is set up — the update would be set up — is identifying lands that are available for application and identifying lands that are not.

But beyond that, we try to look at what else should we be considering. So what you would see in this plan is a range of what we call alternatives, which is what it sounds like. We’ve tried to look at five different ways we could update this plan and ask the public for input on the factors we’re looking at.

So again, we’ve looked at lands that just shouldn’t be available, such as lands that have endangered species, critical habitat designations or sacred sites or recreation emphasis. And then from there we’re looking at lands that are closer to existing and planned transmission or lands that are already disturbed and degraded and looking at combinations of those to see what makes the most sense.

BRODIE: Do you have a sense or is there a sense of how much of this land that you have deemed is available for solar development ultimately will become solar development? Is there a sweet spot there?

WOLFF CULVER: So the way we’ve tried to identify an amount to plan for is based on working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And what they have is something called a solar future study.

So we took all of this into account, literally. Look at if the administration has committed to getting us to a carbon free electricity economy in 2035, what does that mean we need to generate as a country? What contribution of that comes from solar, and what comes from solar on public land? And then once we know what we need to generate, we can estimate what amount of acres that will take.

So that estimate currently is about 700,000 acres of public land that might be developed. It might not be that much as technology improves, but that is the best estimate we could come up with, and that’s what we’re planning for.

BRODIE: Presumably that wouldn’t necessarily be spread evenly across the Western states, right? Like I would imagine it would depend on where the demand is, where utilities or other companies are looking to build these.

WOLFF CULVER: Again, we’ve tried to estimate that. But yes, it’s not perfectly distributed. Partially terrain has an impact on that. But also where we expect proposed and existing transmission would be and other factors. So it is not equally distributed among those 11 states.

BRODIE: What kind of timeframe are you looking at in terms of you have this plan that’s out, at what point might utilities start looking at the map and saying, “Oh, this looks like a good spot for us,” putting in an application and maybe starting to get some of these projects built?

WOLFF CULVER: So the 700,000 acres is a approximately over the next ten years to start getting developed. And we have been working on projects around the West. We have a lot that have been approve. Just in this administration, 47 projects have been approved, and then we have 67 or so projects we’re already looking at.

So we know those are underway, but we expect that to continue. We expect some of those projects to go forward, some of those don’t based on ongoing analysis. So I think what we see is the demand is underway.

The demand has been increasing, the demand has been increasing into states that we didn’t previously plan for, and the demand is increasing, but in a way that we think we can better manage it through these types of factors of proximity to transmission or looking at disturbed land, ensuring that we have these these requirements to minimize impacts and so forth. So I think it’s ongoing.

BRODIE: What are you hearing from some of the communities nearby the public lands? Like are you hearing from any communities or tribal communities about concerns about having these utility-scale solar developments sort of in their backyards?

WOLFF CULVER: So I did have the privilege to be at our first in-person public meeting in Boise. And there were a range of things that we’ve been hearing. And we’re, again, trying to respond to those to make it a little clearer where projects might be suitable and where they might not.

And that is reflected in our alternatives as well when you see this proximity to transmission but also previously disturbed lands. That’s something that we’ve heard a lot about. And then again, I think what we’ve heard from communities is, “What happens next? What happens after the plan?”

And it’s really important to emphasize that what we’re looking at here is taking some land off the table for these conflicts, or narrowing for transmission or for degraded lands, but then the additional lands are available for application. They’re not dedicated to solar. It’s kind of what we think of as the beginning of the discussion.

So when a proposal comes in, then there would be a transparent process that would involve the community, it would involve cooperating agencies of the state, other federal agencies, local communities, and we would go from there and try to make sure we’re addressing those concerns.

More stories from KJZZ

Sustainability The ShowEnvironment