House panel looks at bill to streamline federal renewable energy reviews

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a July 13 legislative hearing on H.R. 2663, the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act of 2015, which aims to streamline and facilitate increased development of renewable energy on federal land.   

“Unfortunately, energy development on our public lands has been hampered repeatedly by regulatory and bureaucratic red tape, as well as costly lawsuits with dubious goals. It comes as no surprise the renewable industry regards the permitting process on federal land as being ‘substantially more difficult to pursue than permitting on private lands,’” said Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. The subcommittee is part of the House Natural Resources Committee.

From a county made up of 75% federal lands, Mohave County, Arizona, Supervisor Buster Johnson talked about his frustration with the protracted federal permitting process. “Simply put, there is no reason for the BLM to take several years to permit a project when our county offices can issue permits in weeks,” Johnson said.

Josh Nordquist, Director of Business Development for Ormat Technologies, discussed obstacles facing the geothermal federal permitting process. “[W]e believe that this bill can help unlock new projects to create high-paying, long term jobs and baseload, emission-free power production,” Nordquist stated.

The bill establishes a new revenue structure which would distribute royalties to affected states, affected counties, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the “Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund.” The new fund serves to mitigate the impacts of renewable development on federal land.

“The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act presents a valuable, bipartisan opportunity to spur renewable energy development on public lands in a way that maximizes benefits to states, counties and the people who use public lands,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz. “This proactive solution brings wind and solar energy more in line with the way other forms of energy development are permitted, creating greater long-term certainty. Additionally, it would direct revenues so that states and counties receive their fair share, so that hunting and fishing opportunities can be enhanced while permits can be processed more efficiently.

Sonoran Institute, Ormat support the bill

Ian Dowdy, Director of thje Sun Corridor Program at the Sonoran Institute, said his group supports the full passage and implementation of HR 2663, the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act. Among other benefits in the bill, he testified:

  • The revenue distribution formula that provides economic value to states and counties to reward a thoughtful and robust renewable energy industry;
  • The establishment of the Renewable Energy Resource Conservation Fund that is funded by the development of energy resources on public lands;
  • The mandate for further planning for wind and geothermal energy that will establish priority development and variance areas similar to the Western Solar Plan;
  • The establishment of a royalty fee for energy generation that promotes more efficient and thoughtful generation of renewable energy;
  • And the requirement for periodic review of energy policy in order to track success and address challenges to the implementation of a renewable energy industry.

Dowdy noted: “For the past decade, Sonoran Institute has been a leader in the West, and particularly in Arizona, at removing barriers for renewable energy development at the utility scale. Since 2010, our Solar Energy Working Group, composed of the state’s major utility companies, conservation interests, and renewable energy representatives, has been convening regularly to address outstanding challenges that limit successful renewable energy development within Arizona. Among other things, the group has advised the Western Solar Plan, the Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project, and has been recently working to promote smartly-located regional transmission facilities that will effectively connect renewable resources to markets throughout the West.”

Nordquist testified that Ormat Technologies is a renewable energy company with decades of experience in geothermal energy. Ormat installed the first geothermal power plant in Nevada, in 1984, and also installed, and operates, the newest geothermal power plant in the U.S. late last year. It has grown to operate over 700 MW of clean and renewable energy production.

Nordquist added: “There are over 3,700 megawatts of geothermal installed in the United States today, and about 1,250 planned megawatts are in the development pipeline. These pending projects could be operational in 17-33 months or sooner with the appropriate power contracts. The Department of Energy projects that there are over 30,000 megawatts of untapped geothermal resource in the United States that could be developed using the commercial technologies that exist today. Further, an MIT study found that 100 GWe of cost-competitive geothermal capacity could be provided using a near-term next generation production technology, called EGS, in the next 50 years. In short, geothermal has enormous growth potential in the United States.”

He said there are various benefits to the pending bill. For one thing, the bill requires the Department of Interior (DOI) to establish priority areas on BLM lands for geothermal, wind and solar development. DOI has established priority zones for solar in the past, but never for geothermal, he noted. DOI would also update its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statements (PEIS’s) for geothermal and other technologies, and amend its land use plans to conform with the updated PEIS’s in order to support renewable development. These provisions will help cut development timelines on the vast majority of the geothermal-rich lands in the United States, because it will ensure developers target only those lands that are most suitable to develop according to resource availability, environmental concerns, the availability of infrastructure, socioeconomic issues, wildlife habitat, and so on.

“We know this is true because we have results from the last geothermal PEIS,” Nordquist added. “In October 2008, the DOI issued its PEIS for Geothermal Leasing in the Western United States in order to reduce the backlog of geothermal lease applications and facilitate more efficient processing. Prior to the implementation of the PEIS, geothermal lease processing took 2–3 years. However, in the period between October 2008 and fall 2010, approximately 230 of the 271 lease parcels offered for sale were processed using a Determination of NEPA Adequacy (DNA). A DNA can be executed in just 3-4 months on average. This program helped improve the pace of geothermal development markedly while maintaining appropriate environmental protections.”

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.