Public lands and wind energy

Wind energy development on U.S. public lands has significant potential. In fact, an estimated 20.6 million acres of public lands in 11 Western states have wind energy development potential, according to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Given this opportunity, policymakers have prioritized the development of renewable energy, including wind, on these public trust lands.  As an example, in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress set a goal of approving at least 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2015.

However, through 2012 only 1.4 percent (just over 800 MW) of wind energy capacity has been installed on public lands out of 60,000-plus MW installed across the country, according to AWEA data.

Bureau of Land Management statements & policies

Key BLM activity related to public lands in the past decade includes:

  • In 2005, BLM completed a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) relating to the development of wind energy on public lands. In conjunction with the publication of this PEIS, BLM amended 52 land use plans to allow for the use of applicable lands for wind energy development.  In theory, a PEIS should speed up wind development because individual project environmental reviews can build off the existing work done for the PEIS.  But, in practice, it remains more time consuming and expensive to develop on public lands than private lands.
  • In 2008, BLM issued a wind energy policy to provide guidance on best management practices (BMPs); measures to mitigate potential impacts on birds, wildlife habitat, and other resource values; and guidance on administering wind energy authorizations. In December 2008, BLM issued an Instruction Memorandum (IM) that provides updated guidance on processing right-of-way applications for wind energy projects, including information on types of right-of-way grants available, rental fees, and other considerations.
  • Since 2009, three wind projects have been approved and are now operating on BLM-managed land, totaling 184 wind turbines with a nameplate capacity of 420 MW. As of Sept. 30, 2014, five more wind projects planned on federal land have received a Record of Decision but await the final federal authorizations needed to allow construction to begin. 
  • At the beginning of 2013, BLM identified six wind farms slated for review as active projects this year and next. To learn more about proposed wind projects with pending applications, search this project database

BLM is now considering moving away from the existing default process where the first application for a given land area has some degree of site control to a competitive leasing process. 

Finally, BLM has issued a number of Instruction Memorandums (IM) with new procedures developing on public lands. This includes a memorandum  to clarify existing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) policy to assist offices that are reviewing wind energy project applications, another outlining procedures for pre-application meetings with field offices, and a memorandum instructing field offices to use state-developed wildlife maps for land-use planning purposes.

AWEA responds to BLM

On Feb. 27 2012, AWEA submitted comments to BLM in response to its publication of an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANOPR) in the Federal Register seeking public comment on the likely future drafting of a rule to establish competitive leasing for wind and solar energy projects on public lands.

AWEA’s comments focused on:

  • The challenges of developing on public lands through the existing right-of-way (ROW) process.
  • Concerns about the additional challenges and costs that developers will face if BLM moves to competitive leasing.
  • Suggestions for how to structure a competitive leasing program in the event that BLM decides to implement such a program.

Wind energy on National Forest land

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages 193 million acres of National Forest and Grasslands across the country. National Forest System lands are in 44 of the 50 states and Puerto Rico. Throughout all of this land, the USFS has approved one 30 MW wind project: Deerfield Wind in Vermont.

To assist in defining areas of wind energy potential, USFS, in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), prepared a report titled “Assessing the Potential for Renewable Energy on National Forest System Lands.

National Forest Service directives on developing wind energy

Wind energy uses are governed by USFS’s special use regulations, which provide a framework and terminology for making decisions regarding proposals and applications on National Forest Service lands. Specifically, the directives provide guidance on siting wind energy turbines, evaluating a variety of resource interests, and addressing issues specifically associated with wind energy in the special use permitting process.

The USFS issued the final directives in August 2011. AWEA submitted comments requesting that USFS reconsider several issues included in the final directives that may negatively impact wind energy development on USFS lands.  The USFS at this time has no plans to do so.