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A massive solar array may be developed on public land in Utah’s Escalante Desert under a federal lease awarded this week.
A decade after establishing “solar energy zones” in several Western states, the Bureau of Land Management has sold its first competitive leases to develop one for renewable energy. On Tuesday, the agency’s Cedar City office announced it has leased 4,836 acres on three parcels of public lands in Beaver County to a subsidiary of Invenergy, a global renewable energy firm based in Chicago.
According to the BLM’s environmental assessment, the leases are expected to host a 600-megawatt array using single-axis tracking photovoltaic modules that would connect to a substation to be built 19 miles away on Rocky Mountain Power’s 345-kilovolt transmission.
“BLM Utah is committed to utilizing public lands to generate renewable energy, including wind and geothermal power, which not only provide jobs, but power our lifestyles and generate clean, reliable solar energy for our communities,” said BLM Color Country District Manager Gloria Tibbetts.
If fully developed, the facilities would generate enough electricity to power 170,000 homes and hire approximately 200 construction workers and 15 operations positions totaling more than $10 million in salaries, according to the BLM.
Solar development has been slow in coming to the West’s public lands, despite an aggressive push by the Obama administration a decade ago to designate optimal locations for solar projects.
Across six sunny southwestern states, the BLM has established 19 “solar energy zones” (SEZs), spanning 285,000 acres, including three zones in Utah. In addition to Milford Flats South, the SEZ near Minersville, there are federal solar zones in nearby Escalante Valley, 6,614 acres, and Wah Wah Valley, 6,097 acres.
Milford Flat South was the first to undergo an environmental review for leasing back in 2018 after an unnamed company “nominated” the land for development.
Meanwhile, solar arrays in the range of 40 to 80 megawatts have been blossoming across Utah’s private and state trust lands like desert flowers, or invasive weeds, depending on your perspective.
Now the Biden administration is clearing the path for wind, solar and geothermal. On Wednesday, the Interior Department announced ambitious plans to permit 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025.
“The demand for renewable energy has never been greater,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. “The technological advances, increased interest, cost effectiveness, and tremendous economic potential make these projects a promising path for diversifying our national energy portfolio, while at the same time combating climate change and investing in communities.”
For auctioning federal solar leases, the BLM developed a sealed bidding process that bears little resemblance to how it auctions oil and gas leases. The Cedar City office solicited sealed bids last year, with minimum bids adding up to $44,000 acres, or about $9 an acre. The bids were opened on Nov. 9 and the Invenergy subsidiary Minersville Solar Energy LLC was found to have submitted the winning offer, totaling $164,000.
Leasing is the first of four steps for developing solar farms on federal land.
“They have up to two years to put up their plan of development, five to build and seven to start producing power,” said BLM realty specialist MacKenzie Johnston, spelling the next three steps.
While projects like this reduce emissions driving climate change, not everyone is thrilled to see the northeast corner of the Escalante Desert get covered in solar panels. The undeveloped land is used for grazing livestock. Irrigated farms lie to the east and a hog-rearing operation to the north.
In their comments to the EA, many local ranchers lamented grazing opportunities that would be lost if the land is given over to solar development. The leases overlap with nine allotments accounting for nearly 5,000 AUMs, or animal unit months, the livestock industry’s standard measure of forage, according to the EA.
These allotments support 20 families, according to ranchers’ comments.
“We will lose at least 7.5 cows/calves if you guys take this ground from us. One cow with calf cost us $2,500 per head. This will cost us to not make $15,000 ÷ 1/2 because we run 1/2 year out in this area. $7,500 per year lost to our operation,” one rancher wrote in their comments. “This is very significant loss to us.”
State officials estimated the solar project would cost ranchers 360 AUMs.
Beaver County leaders say they support renewable energy, but they won’t support this project if it displaces ranchers. County ordinances require that developments on public lands do not result in a net loss of AUMs, according to Commission Mark Whitney.
“If BLM property is taken from a permittee to put it another use, they will have to find them another piece,” Whitney said, arguing that there is plenty of state and private land for siting solar projects in southwest Utah.
“We tout ourself as the renewable energy capital of the world,” Whitney added. “But on the other hand, we have to protect our heritage, customs and culture, and that’s agriculture and ranching in this county.”
Under the terms of the leases, solar developers must give ranchers holding grazing permits two years’ notice before beginning any work that would displace their operations and compensate them for any range improvements that would be affected.
Solar developers also must survey the land for cultural resources and occupied sage grouse habitat.
An Invenergy spokesperson did not respond to an email.