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The Mountain West News Bureau is a collaboration between Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, KUNR in Nevada, Nevada Public Radio, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana and Wyoming Public Media, with support from affiliate stations across the region.

A new solar plan identifies more public land for solar projects, but not without conflict

A row of solar panels in a field under blue skies.
Zbynek Burival
/
Unsplash
The Biden administration announced an expansion of its Western Solar Plan, which identifies areas of public land that could potentially be used to build solar projects. The original plan hadn't been updated since 2012 and includes five more Western states in its original six-state plan.

New efforts aimed at expanding renewable energy projects in the West and identifying areas to build these projects were announced Wednesday by the Biden administration. The goal is to establish a net-zero electric grid by 2035.

The Western Solar Plan hasn’t been updated since 2012. That plan originally identified millions of acres of public land with high solar potential in six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The updated version includes Idaho and Wyoming in the Mountain West, plus three other states.

Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning said this new plan significantly increases the amount of public land available for clean energy projects.

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“Our goal is to drive development to areas of high solar energy potential that have fewer conflicts with other land uses that are close to transmission lines and have less environmental impact overall,” she said.

The Interior Department’s Laura Daniel-Davis, the acting deputy secretary, said now is the time to invest in America’s energy infrastructure.

“The technological advances, increased interests, cost effectiveness and tremendous economic potential make these projects a promising path for diversifying our energy portfolio, while at the same time combating climate change and investing in communities,” said Daniel-Davis.

But conservationists want the Bureau of Land Management to conserve big-game habitats, as well as hunting and fishing areas as it advances solar development on public lands.

“We recognize that public lands in the West provide important options to help meet the nation’s renewable energy needs,” said Jon Holst, wildlife & energy senior advisor for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, in a statement. “Our public lands also contain critical unfragmented habitats for fish and wildlife populations that offer world class hunting and angling opportunities. We will be looking at the details of this draft plan to make sure that the interests of hunters and anglers are incorporated.”

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The government's release of its updated solar plan kicks off a 90-day comment period where the public will have an opportunity to provide input on the draft plan. The public can submit written comments through April 18, 2024 and view more details about the plan and its proposed map on the BLM’s Solar Program website.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Yvette Fernandez is the regional reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau. She joined Nevada Public Radio in September 2021.