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Covid Relief Bill Opens Rush for Renewables on Federal Land

Dec. 28, 2020, 6:31 PM

President-elect Joe Biden’s ambitious climate agenda got a shot in the arm with the Covid relief bill, environmental attorneys say, particularly with provisions that will open up wide swaths of federal land to renewable energy development.

The measure, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Sunday, requires by 2025 an increase of at least five times the amount of solar, wind and geothermal energy production currently on federal land. It also creates a new office in the Bureau of Land Management to coordinate renewable energy permitting among all federal lands agencies, including those in the Interior and Agriculture departments.

Biden’s climate plan calls for the U.S. to achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

“This new law signals congressional support for taking advantage of the tremendous potential of federal land to host much of the massive amount of new renewables we need,” said Michael Gerrard, founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Biden’s choices for Interior and Energy secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, “will run with this” if the two are confirmed, Gerrard said.

Interior didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday about its strategy in creating the office and enabling renewables development.

Shifting Focus

In passing the law, Congress effectively rejected the Trump administration’s laser-focus on drilling for oil and gas on federal lands while ignoring their vast renewable energy potential, said Obama-era deputy Interior secretary David Hayes, now at New York University’s State Energy and Environmental Impact Center.

Solar and wind energy expansion on land bureau land in the West lost steam during the Trump years, with only a handful of projects approved—mostly in Nevada, New Mexico and California.

The renewable energy target is achievable “only because the President-elect has made it clear that his administration will prioritize the development of renewable energy on public lands and in offshore waters,” Hayes said.

As of a year ago, there were 96 utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal power projects on federal lands totaling about 5 gigawatts of electricity generating capacity, according to federal data and a 2020 Yale University and Wilderness Society report.

Those projects are mostly in the West, but the law applies to all federal lands nationwide, including those that the Interior and Agriculture departments manage.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Monday the energy package is “only a first step”in what he expects will be an ambitious climate agenda from Biden.

It’s up to Congress to do more, Grijalva added.

Meanwhile, “the Interior Department now has a clear signal that it’s time to make larger investments in clean energy on public lands,” Grijalva said.

Feasible and Low Impact

Quintupling renewable energy generation on public land is feasible in part because the land bureau already has plans on where to locate solar and wind energy projects, said Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley.

The federal government is equipped to quickly ramp up renewables permitting in those areas while minimizing ecological impacts, he said.

“I breathed a sigh of relief knowing there will be a federal coordinating office,” because it can bring together all federal agencies needed to address renewable energy project siting and construction, electric transmission lines, and electricity storage facilities, Kammen said.

That level of coordination will make the ramp-up possible, but the federal government has to be fully on board with agency coordination in order for it to work while also safeguarding the natural environment, said Nikki Springer, the Yale report’s co-author and a research fellow at Yale’s Center for Business and the Environment.

Balancing Act

Preventing solar and wind power from harming the ecosystems and their plants and animals was one of the Obama administration’s biggest challenges with renewables, and it may be one for the incoming administration as well, said Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at Stanford Law School.

“The incoming Biden administration will have to balance pressure to identify a clear path for building new clean energy infrastructure with ongoing concerns about the dilution of federal protections for wild lands and critical habitats,” Cullenward said.

Gerrard warned, however, that much more renewable power is needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to address climate change by mid-century. The U.S. needs to roughly triple its current 1,100 gigawatts of renewable energy production capacity by 2050 in order to achieve net zero emissions, he said.

“25 gigawatts is a tiny fraction of the amount of new renewables we need in order to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” he said.

Still, renewable energy companies applauded the move as a way to reduce carbon emissions in the U.S.

“We look forward to getting solar projects moving and making progress toward our collective goals,” said Dan Whitten, vice president of public affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

—With assistance from Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com