News & Insights

The Next Phase of Energy Development on Federal Lands

Development on Federal Lands
Anna Lundin

Anna Lundin

Energy Practice Lead

The U.S. 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, 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 U.S. 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 an SF-299 and Preliminary Plan of Development
  5. If applicable, development of variance lands request
  6. Negotiation of terms and completion of cost recovery agreement Preparation of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documentation
  7. Navigation of rent and rights-of-way (ROW) agreements
  8. Completion of supporting surveys and studies
  9. 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 this year to next year, 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 U.S. 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 BLM is currently considering substantial revisions to the 2012 Western Solar Plan, which designated federal lands for development of solar in six southwestern states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The BLM is seeking comment regarding expanding its plan to include additional lands and renewable generation types in these states and in five additional states: 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.

The Bureau of Land Management completed public scoping for the new plan on March 1, 2023. Kimley-Horn proudly participated in the scoping process and looks forward to reviewing the draft and final plans and 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 22 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 D.C., but she has been Colorado-based for the past 15 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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