Desert tortoise fence installation for a solar energy project located in eastern Riverside County in California.  (BLM)
Desert tortoise fence installation for a solar energy project located in eastern 
Riverside County in California.  (BLM)

Just How Big Is That ROW Grant?

By Tom Hurshman

As a national right-of-way (ROW) project manager, I am used to dealing with big projects and big resource conflicts on big areas of public land.  The BLM has approved ROW grants for many different kinds of energy generation and transmission projects on public lands, including wind and solar development projects. 

Interest in solar projects began to grow, when in 2002, the State of California established a renewables portfolio standard requiring energy companies to obtain 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 (it has since been increased to 33 percent by 2020).  In 2005, Congress approved the Energy Policy Act, which set a goal of producing 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2015.  In 2009, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signed Secretarial Order 3283, “Enhancing Renewable Energy Development on the Public Lands”.  As a result, BLM field offices in the desert regions of California, Arizona, and Nevada were deluged by a virtual land rush of ROW applications for large-scale solar projects.  The applications in California alone affected over 1 million acres.  The scale of many proposals covered 5 to 10 square miles or more. 

Wind energy project in Arizona.  (BLM)
Wind energy project in Arizona.  (BLM)
As applications came pouring in, BLM offices could hardly keep up with checking land records, verifying land status, establishing serial numbers, and sending out preliminary agreements for payment for processing the applications.  Multiple ROW applications for the same public land tracts began piling up, requiring the BLM to consider those that were first in line before those that were second or third.  The BLM had little policy for processing large-scale solar applications and no clear direction on what information needed to be included with a solar project ROW application.  The continual influx of new applications left little time to think about processing the applications already on hand.

I was the first BLM project manager assigned to process one of these commercial-scale solar ROW applications in 2007.  I was used to dealing with natural gas pipeline and electric transmission companies that knew what BLM wanted in an application.  They understood the process of gathering data for an EIS and inventorying for threatened and endangered species and cultural resources.  These new applicants were different.  Most of the applications were from upstart renewable energy companies with a smattering of venture capital investors that had never heard of the BLM or a ROW grant, let alone the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act, or National Historic Preservation Act.  They wanted detailed explanations for every piece of information we asked them to provide.  They did not understand why we needed an actual preliminary project design versus an artist’s rendition of their project.  Special interest groups jumped into the mix.  Broad-scale support for renewable energy was countered by NIMBY (“not-in-my-back-yard”) opposition from vocal and quite polarized interest groups. 

The first large-scale solar applications wound up on the “Fast-Track” list.  Compressed timelines were established, and never in the ROW program had so much emphasis been placed upon completing an analysis on time.  NEPA documents and decisions were prepared, double checked, reviewed by multiple solicitors, and signed at the highest level within the Department of the Interior.

When I visited the site of a proposed commercial solar plant, I thought I understood the scope of the area that would be used and impacted.  I’d wave my arms around saying the solar fields will extend from here to well beyond that transmission line way over there and then over to this little knob.  However, when the bulldozers and earthmovers started rolling, and I saw tractors, pickups, and fencing crews, all accompanied by an army of biological monitors way off in the distance, I realized, “Man, this is bigger than I thought.”  I walked around the first solar field as it was being fenced, which was less than one-third of the total area that was approved under the ROW grant.  I walked for 2½ hours before I was back to where I started, and I was not walking slowly.  It had been a 5-mile hike.  There were two more solar fields, each slightly larger than this one, that were going to be cleared next.

Within the principles of multiple use, the mandate to use public land for renewable energy development is clear.  BLM’s decisionmaking processes, as well as time, public sentiment, the economy, and perhaps the courts, will tell us how many big solar developments will be built on public land in the future.  At a groundbreaking ceremony, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stated, “We made believers out of skeptics.”  I admit I was a bit skeptical that the project would break ground, but I am proud to have been a part of this step toward energy independence taking place on our public land.

Tom Hurshman is a national right-of-way project manager with the Washington Office, stationed in Montrose, Colorado.  He has worked in the lands and realty program in BLM field offices, district offices, and the Washington Office since joining the BLM in 1979.