The federal government owns massive amounts of land out West, much of which is quite windy and sunny. Renewable energy deployments on that land haven't accelerated much, though, due to a lengthy scrutiny process.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hoped to change that by releasing a finalized rule Thursday that would speed up leasing for clean energy on pre-cleared plots of land. If this five-year-long rulemaking had wrapped up a week ago, the story would be about how energy companies and environmentalists are reacting to it. Now the pressing question is whether it can survive the presidency of Donald Trump.
The Department of the Interior has approved 15,500 megawatts of renewable generation on public lands since President Barack Obama took office, and is aiming for 20,000 megawatts by 2020. The problem is, they're not all getting built. The Desert Sun reported that only 31 of the 60 approved projects now operate; the rest were canceled or have been held up by economic or environmental challenges. A more streamlined approach to those concerns is warranted.
The new rule creates "designated leasing areas," or DLAs, which have been scrutinized and selected to maximize generation potential while minimizing environmental damage. This is meant to speed up the leasing process, because it analyzes wildlife and wilderness concerns before a company applies to start developing those spots.
To sweeten the pot, BLM threw in some financial incentives. The application filing fee is $15 per acre outside the designated areas, $5 per acre within. Developers bidding for projects within a DLA can also earn credits up to 20 percent for the cost of their bid by doing things like having an approved PPA or employing less water-intensive technology. The per-megawatt capacity fee also phases in over 10 years inside of the special areas, compared to three years outside.
The full details are available in the rule itself. But in short, the rule is designed to nudge renewables projects toward specific areas by making the process faster and cheaper for developers there.
"These are large-scale industrial projects, and they have significant impacts when they’re built, so it’s important that the approach used for development on public lands ensures we can scale up rapidly while protecting our heritage," said Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society and a strong supporter of the rule. "It’s more efficient and productive for developers, because you’re not stuck in a situation where there are big conflicts and controversies surrounding projects."
This approach has already worked, Daue said, in cases like the Dry Lake area outside Las Vegas, which was designated under the Western Solar Plan, a precursor to the new rule. It was a barren scrubland region near an intersection of highways and transmission lines. The expedited permitting lasted fewer than 10 months, less than half the average wait for the unexpedited review process.
Renewable energy companies expressed concern during the drafting process that the new rules could increase costs and introduce uncertainty into rent rates on most federal land, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Incentivizing the designated spots, after all, involves disincentivizing the rest of federal land, which these companies don't like. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) explicitly criticized the outcome, saying it makes federal lands less attractive to wind developers.
"This will add time, uncertainty, complexity and expense to a process that was already more difficult than developing on private lands," said Tom Vinson, vice president of federal regulatory affairs at AWEA, in a statement. "The rule penalizes projects pursued outside of designated zones, yet there are no designated zones for wind energy, and there may not be for years."
BLM has yet to respond to an inquiry about designated zones for wind. So it's currently unclear how this more codified approach would be more time-intensive than the more ad-hoc status quo. Following the election, though, the bigger question is whether or not the incoming president will keep the new rule around.
Should it stay or should it go?
The rule has been finalized, and will enter into force 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. That means it won't be around long before Trump takes office, and he'll have a chance to stop it or allow it to proceed.
According to bureaucratic norms, unraveling a departmental rule that went through notice and comment procedures and became final requires going back through notice and comment procedures and explaining why the rule is being rescinded or changed, said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. That is, of course, assuming Trump plays by the norms of the federal government.
On the campaign trail, Trump devoted most of his energy statements to support for American coal, oil and gas production. He's said he wants to scrap the Clean Power Plan, crafted by Obama's Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector, as well as the Department of Energy's efficiency standards.
At least on paper, though, Trump is not fundamentally opposed to clean energy. His newly minted transition website, Greatagain.gov, says the next administration "will make full use of our domestic energy sources, including traditional and renewable energy sources."
The more specific goals of the transition team closely match the purpose of the new BLM rule: "the creation of millions of new jobs, while protecting the country’s most valuable resources -- our clean air, clean water and natural habitats," according to Trump's website.
If the new administration appreciates the renewable leasing rule's potential for job creation and nature protection, it could stick around. The rule also adds competitive bidding for leasing rights and cuts red tape, two achievements a typical Republican administration would appreciate.
The expansion of domestic renewable energy production would support Trump's energy independence goals, said David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Association, which shares Trump's belief in all-of-the-above energy development.
"To be energy self-sufficient, we've got to produce more renewable energy -- the math doesn't work without it," Holt said.
Failing that, a more geopolitical argument could succeed in uniting the BLM rule with Trump's worldview.
"It will ramp up infrastructure construction and support expansion of a growing industry in which our country can still be a global leader," Burger wrote in an email Thursday. "It can help us beat the Chinese in solar and wind."