News & Insights

The Next Phase of Energy Development on Federal Lands

Development on Federal Lands
Anna Lundin

Anna Lundin

Energy Practice Lead

This article was first published on April 13, 2023, and was updated on January 31, 2024, to reflect the Bureau of Land Management’s new draft roadmap for solar energy development on public lands released on January 17. Read the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for evaluating utility-scale solar energy development for more information.

The US has a goal of generating 25 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy—enough to power nearly 19 million homes—on America’s public lands between 2021 and 2025. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said that federal lands “have a unique role in meeting Congress’s direction under the Energy Act of 2020 and the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.”

The federal government owns about 640 million acres—more than one quarter of the country’s land. Of this, the BLM administers almost 40%, and the US Forest Service administers 30%. Both the BLM and Forest Service are multi-use agencies whose purposes include energy development.

Developing renewable energy infrastructure on federal lands can appear cumbersome and time-consuming at first glance, but it also delivers strong advantages. Most notably, the federal process is prescriptive and linear, spanning land acquisition, project development, and permitting.

Specifically, developers may navigate these steps to satisfy the federal application process:

  1. Identification of suitable federal lands
  2. Review of the associated land management plan(s)
  3. Early coordination with the associated field office/Renewable Energy Coordination Offices (RECO), followed by a formal pre-application meeting
  4. Development of the lease application via a SF-299 and Preliminary Plan of Development
  5. If applicable, development of a variance lands request and variance factors analysis report (VFAR)
  6. Negotiation of terms and completion of a cost recovery agreement
  7. Preparation of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation
  8. Navigation of rent and rights-of-way (ROW) agreements
  9. Completion of supporting surveys and studies
  10. Completion of plans of development, project plans, and project design

Renewable Energy on Public Lands

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service authorize three major categories of renewable energy generation on public lands: solar, wind, and geothermal. The agencies issue ROW grants and leases for solar and wind energy and for transmission lines that support renewable energy projects.

Once a project is approved, the BLM or the Forest Service remains responsible for maintaining appropriate oversight. This includes monitoring and inspections of the projects until they are ultimately decommissioned and the land is properly restored.

The BLM recently updated its projections for a substantial increase in the operations of solar projects on BLM-managed lands in 2024. The projected permitting megawatts will increase 142% from 2023 to 2024, markedly higher than the 55% increase from 2022 to 2023.

Projected permitting megawatts (by fiscal year) for solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects.
Source: BLM Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Report to Congress

Energy Development Incentives

In May 2022, the BLM published reduced acreage rental rates and megawatt capacity fees for renewable energy projects on federal lands. The reduced rates are intended to lower financial barriers to clean energy investments while still collecting a reasonable return for the use of public lands and resources. The reduction also provides improved rate predictability by publishing rates that can be used through 2050 for existing and new solar and wind energy projects authorized on public lands. The reduced rental rates are intended to promote an increase in renewable energy projects on land that can be leased at less than fair market value.

In 2022, the BLM also added renewable energy coordination offices in an aim to increase its internal capacity to process ROW applications. Additional incentives to siting renewable energy projects on federal lands include streamlined permitting for lands set-aside or designated as specific for energy development: solar energy zones, renewable development focus areas, and 368 west-wide energy corridors. Numerous other federal loans and grants are also available to assist renewable energy developers and utilities with generation and transmission projects, chief among them Rural Development grants and loans.

These programs, coupled with tax credit provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act reconciliation package, support a thriving environment for renewable development to increase in the US. However, suitable land to support such development near existing grid infrastructure is increasingly posing a challenge to developers. Considering federal lands as a viable option to private lands should be a key component of a developer’s strategy.

What’s Upcoming?

The updated Draft PEIS was released by the BLM on January 17, 2024, and the BLM is seeking comment on it. As part of this effort, the BLM is hosting a series of public meetings in February and March 2024 regarding the proposed updates, which include adding up to 22 million acres of public lands wherein renewable energy development would be facilitated or expedited. The lands are located throughout the six southwestern states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah—and in five additional states: 

BLS solar development planning areas

Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. The goal of the new plan is to increase opportunities to locate renewable energy development on federal lands in order to advance current and future federal renewable energy goals and support conservation and climate priorities.

Kimley-Horn proudly participated in the scoping process for the PEIS. The Department of the Interior included our input in four of five of the action alternatives within the PEIS.  We anticipate that the Department will work expeditiously to finalize the PEIS prior to the fall election and we look forward  to supporting additional renewable energy development on federal lands.

About the Author

Anna Lundin

Anna Lundin

Anna Lundin is an Energy Planning and Development Project Manager with over 23 years of experience in siting and permitting energy projects located on federal lands and those using federal loans and grants. She has assisted in the development of strategy, management, and preparation of large, complex environmental impact studies and permitting projects for a wide range of federal agencies, including the BLM, on behalf of agencies, utilities, and developers. Anna has a background in environmental engineering, with a particular emphasis on water and land resources. She previously supported the Council of Environmental Quality and assisted in the development of environmental policy while based in Washington DC, but she has been Colorado-based for the past 16 years. She currently serves as a Colorado Director for the Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy nonprofit and is passionate about supporting energy transition in the West.


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