New Program Spurs Solar Development on Public Land

The government recently announced a new plan to facilitate the development of solar energy projects on public land in six Western states. Lawrence Susskind, a professor of urban and environmental planning at MIT, explains what it means for the future of renewable energy.

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FLORA LICHTMAN, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Flora Lichtman, filling in for Ira Flatow this week. Last week the Obama administration opened up 285,000 acres of public land for big solar energy projects. These sites span six Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. And the advantage, experts say, is that the new program will cut down on waiting times for permits for solar projects, and that decreases risk for solar developers.

The Department of Interior says the projects in these solar energy zones could generate enough electricity to power 7 million homes. But when can we expect that solar power to start flowing? And does this seem like a viable model for other renewable energy sources like wind?

If you want to get in on the conversation, our number is 1-800-989-8255, that's 1-800-989-TALK. Or you can tweet us @scifri. Let me introduce my guest. Lawrence Susskind is the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's joining me from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.

LAWRENCE SUSSKIND: Thanks very much, Flora.

LICHTMAN: How were these sites selected?

SUSSKIND: Through a pretty elaborate process starting back several years. The Interior Department proposed that they look not at site by site by site but it look at all the federal lands, take all the federal lands which have high solar potential, leave out all the rest, take the ones with high solar potential and look at those that are near transmission lines, leave out all the rest, take all of those that are remaining, eliminate all those which have sensitive habitats or important ecosystem values, eliminate those, and what you have left are zones that were then studied in what was called a programmatic environmental impact assessment.

We usually do impact assessments project-by-project, as they're proposed. That's what backlogs everything and takes so long. This - now these have been - all these sites and these zones have been, in a sense, pre-approved, and all of those steps were very open to public engagement.

The original proposal was a lot more land and a lot more zones and a lot more sites, but after environmental groups and business groups and others had a say, Interior Department narrowed all that down through this process of programmatic impact assessment.

LICHTMAN: What's interesting is it seems like there's been a lot of buy-in. I mean, I haven't heard that many complaints about this proposal.

SUSSKIND: When you do the process right and people have a chance to participate before decisions are made, and you include science in the conversation, that's what an impact assessment does. But then even as you draft your initial scientific assessment and compare all the options, people have again a chance to participate. I'm sure somebody, when a specific project is announced in one of these zones who hasn't been paying any attention for the last several years, is going to jump up and say wait a minute, wait a minute, this is my favorite site for this other purpose, you can't use it this way.

But at that point, they're not going to have much of a leg to stand on. So if you do the process right, it's not clear to me why people would be enormously unhappy anymore.

LICHTMAN: Has this ever been done before, I mean, even with other types of energy like oil and gas for example?

SUSSKIND: That's not how we have historically done oil and gas use or exploration. Again, we're talking on public land. It's not been how we've done it. It is the way we've tried in recent years to think about the Endangered Species Act. Instead of looking at each little place when a question comes up and say is this an endangered habitat, is this a problem, look at large areas, ecosystems, chunks that make sense together.

Try to highlight what the problems are in that area so that subsequent development proposals are not - don't start from ground zero. Information's been gathered and looked at in a more systematic way. I mean, programmatic environmental impact assessments have been allowed ever since NEPA passed back in the 1970s.

It hasn't been used very often. I think that the Interior Department should get a lot of credit for using it this time.

LICHTMAN: Well, to that point, when I listened to the debate earlier in the week, there was a touchy moment about opening up federal lands for energy use, and I was surprised, since this had just been announced, that President Obama hadn't mentioned it. It almost was as if renewable energy is so polarized or politicized that it was a liability. What's your take?

SUSSKIND: Well, I don't think it's a liability at all. We've always had a policy of multiple use of public lands. There are lots of competing interests, including oil and gas exploration, but forestry and cattle raising and who gets the water on the federal lands and what kind of activities, recreational and otherwise, are allowed.

Multiple use has always been the policy. The notion that we're going to use some of it for renewable energy, I don't think that's controversial, and...

LICHTMAN: Why wouldn't we hear it trumpeted, though, I guess is my question?

SUSSKIND: I don't know. I have no idea. If I were the president, I'd make a big deal about the way it was done. We're going to need solar energy, wind energy. We're going to need it long-term, and we have a lot of proposals pending. I mean, you know, 30 states, I think it's 30, have renewable energy portfolios.

They all passed legislation a couple years back and said 20 percent of our electric power will come from renewable sources by 2020. And then they were all waiting around for somebody to propose projects and trying to get their portfolio up to 20 percent of electricity from renewables from 2020. That's more than half the states. It's not controversial.

But every time a specific project is proposed, somebody always thinks some other place must be better, I like this place for something else. This procedure, which should be trumpeted, is a much better way of looking comprehensively at the problem.

If you're a solar energy developer, you can now just take this list and say OK, I can go to one of these states, to one of these sites, it's all pre-approved. I'm not going to have people yelling at me, I'm not going to have litigation, this is great.

And they picked sites not that they didn't want to put on the list but those with high solar potential, near transmission lines, which are going to protect unique ecological resources. I'd make a big deal out of it.

LICHTMAN: Do you think - do we have the technology to do the size, the scale of projects that this land enables us to do?

SUSSKIND: Oh, I think in solar absolutely. I mean, it's just a question of, you know, what - we have multiple technologies. We have multiple technologies that can operate at this scale. I'm not an engineer, but if you have an engineer who wants to call in and talk about the scale of these and how they operate, but they're scalable. They're technologies that are readily scalable once you have the way of doing it, if you do it over more space, more solar arrays.

The issue is if you put it somewhere where you can't connect it to the grid, that's no good. That's why they eliminated sites that weren't going to be near to a place you could plug into the grid and use the energy. So I don't think the technology is a question.

LICHTMAN: Do you see this as a model for other renewable energies? I mean, could they intersperse some turbines on this land, too?

SUSSKIND: Well, I think you need to start the selection process with different criteria in mind. Here they looked at solar potential. You'd have to start with let's look at wind potential, or let's look at geothermal potential, or let's look at biomass potential on publicly owned lands, and you go through the same kind of a process.

And there might be other groups that would also want to have a say if they did it the same way, but I think the process is terrifically useful and ought to begin anew for each type of renewable. I don't think you do this once for all renewables because you really want to not just choose sites you don't want for other things. You want them to be good for the particular renewable energy source you're talking about.

LICHTMAN: When do you think we can expect to see energy flowing from these areas?

SUSSKIND: Oh goodness, that I don't have a magic crystal ball that would allow me to say it. I guess it - I mean, there are three...

LICHTMAN: Do you - I mean, in the next five years or next year?

SUSSKIND: Oh yes, absolutely within five years. I mean, there are 300 major solar applications I believe, you know, applications for solar projects that are pending on Bureau of Land Management land. The problem is they had to go through reviewing every single one, and the sites that were proposed by entrepreneurs who wanted to build them were not necessarily those that were going to be least problematic from an ecosystem preservation standpoint.

So - but there's hundreds of people and industries and entrepreneurial types ready, willing and able to build solar plants. I would imagine something substantial could certainly be built in five years.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for joining us today, Lawrence Susskind.

SUSSKIND: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you, and let's hope someone does trumpet this.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, indeed. Lawrence Susskind is the Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT.

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