Photo of a bulldozer parked off a dirt road near a hill.
A bulldozer parked near Saginaw Hill.  (BLM)

BLM’s Innovative Approaches to Renewable Energy Development in Arizona

By Kathy Pedrick

As interest in renewable energy heightened in the early 2000s, the BLM experienced something akin to the gold and land rushes of prior centuries.  Developers, utility corporations, and get-rich-quick promoters descended on southwestern deserts to file claims for a piece of solar pie.  In Arizona alone, more than 450,000 acres of land were under application by 2008.  Southern California and southern Nevada saw similar levels of activity.

In response to these staggering numbers, the BLM initiated a solar programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) to address common issues, analyzing high-potential solar areas in six western states.  The BLM identified three solar study areas in Arizona.

One of the major concerns identified by the public was the vast amount of fragile desert landscape that stood to be impacted by the development of solar energy.  In addition to potential land disturbance, the amount of water used by many solar technologies was identified as a serious threat to states struggling after more than 10 years of drought.  A common theme at public meetings was concern over using Arizona’s scarce water to generate power for export to the energy-hungry West.

In 2009, the BLM in Arizona proposed a project that looked at siting renewable energy projects on previously disturbed or damaged lands and lands with low natural resource sensitivity.  Dubbed the Restoration Design Energy Project (RDEP), the effort was funded from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The BLM initiated an EIS to amend resource management plans in Arizona to allow the siting of renewable energy facilities on these disturbed or damaged lands.

The public, stakeholders, utility corporations, and landowners were asked to nominate disturbed sites to be considered for analysis in the EIS.  These sites were used as “case studies” to analyze the disturbance and remediation or restoration a potential developer might expect on different types of disturbed lands such as closed landfills, retired agricultural lands, mine tailings or spoil sites, and sand and gravel pits.

The BLM’s goal was to be able to inform the public, policymakers, developers, and landowners where the best areas in Arizona might be for siting renewable energy on disturbed lands.  By looking at previously impacted sites, areas of low resource sensitivity, areas without water concerns, and areas close to load demand and transmission lines, the RDEP blueprint targets appropriate public lands for renewable energy development.  This approach minimizes the disturbance to Arizona’s amazing natural and cultural resources while capturing its abundant sunshine for energy.

Kathy Pedrick is currently a special assistant to the BLM state director in Arizona.  Kathy is also the Arizona strategies coordinator and the project manager for the Restoration Design Energy Project as well as the Arizona borderland coordinator for the BLM.