Bureau of Land Management Receptive to Renewable Developers

The administration’s recent push for renewable energy projects has set off an intensive land hunt by developers and private companies looking to build solar or wind energy generation plants. Many developers are pursuing, and many conservationists are wincing at, the idea of using federal land for renewable power projects. The most sought-after territory — approximately one million acres of federal land — is spread across Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah and is currently contested by renewable energy developers and environmentalists. Many utilities are also part of this rush, since they are eager to buy from renewable energy companies due to the enforcement of state renewable portfolio standards.

The biggest issue has been whether to allow development on federal land, to allow it in certain areas or to completely reject applications for projects on federal land. The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) has accepted numerous solar and wind right-of-way applications over the past few years for this large piece of land. On December 21, 2009, Dianne Feinstein moved for a solution to this issue by introducing legislation in the California Senate that aims to prevent building massive solar power plants on specific plots of federal land. Experts allege that in the past years BLM has lacked the resources to set a standard for processing the hundreds of applications received, and that even an approved application requires a right-of-way permit, which falls under the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) because it is considered a “major federal action.” Because it is a project categorized under NEPA, companies looking to develop solar or wind power plants must produce (for NEPA’s review) an environmental impact study. According to NEPA’s records, not one utility-scale power plant has produced a finalized environmental impact study.

Because of increasing pressure on renewable energy development and increasingly aggressive renewable portfolio standards in many states, experts report that companies are working to develop and finalize these environmental impact studies this year and that BLM also hopes to effectively establish an acceptable process for all future projects. Experts believe that once the first round of applications is processed and approved or rejected, BLM will set a solar energy project standard.

Recent Studies Fuel Increased Wind Development in the U.S.

A January 20 report released by the Energy Department predicts that wind could replace coal and natural gas for 20 to 30 percent of the electricity used in the eastern two-thirds of the United States by 2024 as long as there is continued government policy support for the industry. Given the approximately 35,000 MW of wind energy capacity installed across the United States and additional sites planned or under development, many electricity customers and electricity companies alike are concerned not only about the reliance on wind energy in such large amounts, but also about the future impact of wind farms on nearby property values.

The January 20 report alleges that such dependence on wind energy is possible, but the most important issue to ensure such a reliance on wind power is the expansion of the power grid and dedication to increasing the technical capabilities of such power grids and grid connections. While many projects are developed on a state-by-state basis to meet separate state requirements for renewable energy generation, many companies and developers are looking at alternative options, such as building wind turbines offshore, where wind is more consistent yet still close to major cities.

Given the real estate value fluctuations expected over the next few years, many homeowners are expressing concerns over the effect of wind farms on property values, whether built on a farm nearby or offshore within sight. In Massachusetts, the Cape Wind project, a proposal to construct 130 offshore wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, remains the subject of heavy debate among residents and conservationists, who cite numerous problems with such a development, among them the possible declines in property values. But a new report released December 2009 by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reviewed and evaluated such concern. The study ultimately found that proximity to wind energy facilities does not have an extreme or widespread adverse effect on the property values of nearby homes.

The report is based on data that was collected between 1996 and 2007 from homes located within 10 miles of approximately 24 existing wind facilities. More than 7,500 homes in nine states were studied, using site visits and collection of extensive data. Each home in the sample was visited to collect important information such as wind turbines’ visibility from the home and distance from the home.

Copenhagen Accord Moves Forward; What’s Next?

December’s UN Climate Change Conference has been labeled both a success and a failure by various media outlets and climate summit followers. The meeting did establish the Copenhagen Accord, which has become known as a general agreement that endorses the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and establishes the Copenhagen Green Climate Fund, an operating entity of the financial mechanism. The deal was brokered between China, South Africa, India, Brazil and the United States, and 192 countries in the full plenary session were urged to acknowledge it.

On January 28 the United States formally notified the United Nations that it embraced the Copenhagen Accord, setting nonbinding goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which were negotiated last month. The Obama administration will aim for a 17 percent reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases by 2020, using 2005 as the base year. The European Union has also confirmed their willingness to be associated with the Copenhagen Accord. The EU presented the established greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets for 2020, which include reducing overall emissions by 20 percent of 1990 levels. The EU also suggested a conditional offer to increase this to 30 percent provided that other major countries agree to take on their fair share of a global reduction effort. Under the accord, notifications were to be submitted by January 31, 2010. Other countries, such as Nigeria and India, are undecided on whether to accept the Copenhagen Accord and set an emissions reduction goal.

Heads of state and government plan to assess the post- Copenhagen situation at the Informal European Council in February 2010, and many see the Copenhagen Accord as a positive sign that heads of state and the world’s largest emissions contributors are actively engaged in the process. Many experts believe this new approach is what the UN needs to move forward on the negotiations, which have proved to be very difficult in recent years. The next round of UN negotiations will take place for two weeks in May or June 2010.