Easing the Renewable Permit Backlog

Solar and wind companies trying to build big projects on U.S. public lands can breathe a sigh of relief — the long line for a permit from the Bureau of Land Management can finally start moving. The bureau, part of the Department of the Interior, said this weekend that it plans to use $41 million in stimulus funds to help reduce a backlog of pending applications for large-scale solar and wind projects on land it manages.


The cash was announced by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as part of a larger $305 million initiative at the bureau to restore public lands and watersheds. The initiative also includes funding for energy efficiency improvements at the bureau’s facilities, as well as some small-scale solar projects in Nevada, which are not part of the application backlog.

The backlog includes applications for 199 solar and 241 wind projects, Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby told us. He said there are 65 projects in solar and wind that are far enough along in the development process that they can directly benefit from a speedier application process. Moving those projects along will certainly bring everyone else closer to the head of the line, although Quimby points out that not every application will be approved.

Last June, the bureau was so overwhelmed with applications for solar power plants, it decided to put a freeze on new applications. But after an outcry from the solar industry, just a few days later the bureau changed its mind, opening its doors again and letting the line grow even longer.

Solar thermal startup BrightSource is one of the companies hoping to build a project on public lands, but the company needs approval from both the Bureau of Land Management as well as the California Energy Commission. Last year, BrightSource said it was trying to get the two agencies to review renewable projects in parallel, to streamline the permitting process.

But getting a permit isn’t the only hurdle for renewable projects on public land. When BrightSource originally announced its 900 MW project last April, it said securing transmission lines will be the biggest factor. The Bureau of Land Management bureau must be listening — it said this weekend that it plans to use some of that $41 million for regional planning and siting for future transmission, as well as for future renewable development. The bureau is working on so-called “Renewable Energy Zones” that will group together land for renewable energy use, and Quimby said this latest funding will help the bureau site where transmission corridors for those zones will go.

Photo of Ken Salazar courtesy of the Department of the Interior.