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Guidelines ease access to public land -- Opening up big potential

Easier siting of wind projects on federally owned land -- where potential exists for 3260 MW of economically developable wind power by 2025 -- cleared the penultimate hurdle late last month when the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued long awaited siting guidelines. The guidelines cover a range of issues, including road construction, erosion control, transport, noise, lighting and rental fees for wind development on the nearly 190 million acres managed by the BLM in the western US.

Official approval of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on wind energy development is expected in October. Most of the potential identified by the BLM up until 2015 is in California (570 MW), Nevada (570 MW), Idaho (110 MW) and Utah (250 MW). Up to 2025 the California potential rises to 1460 MW and Nevada to 700 MW, with Colorado (90 MW), Oregon/Washington (210 MW) New Mexico (200 MW) and Wyoming (80 MW) also appearing on the BLM map. The PEIS will speed up the approvals process once a wind developer has identified a site, says the BLM's Ray Brady. "Hopefully you can do a lower level of [environmental] analysis."

Previously, says PEIS program manager Lee Otteni, BLM's rules did not cover wind plants. "They were developed before wind energy was on radar screens," he says. That meant developers typically had to complete a detailed environmental impact statement (EIS) for each project -- a process that can take years with no assurance of success. Where proposed projects are in environmentally sensitive areas, Otteni says developers may still have to complete an EIS, but for much of the BLM-managed land the bar is lower.

The wind PEIS is modelled on existing BLM guidelines for determining commercial leases for fossil fuel generation and transmission rights of way, Otteni says. "This is not new ground. It's applying what we've done in fossil fuel to renewables."

When Otteni starting working with BLM, he says "there were a lot of horror stories about getting permits." Proper guidelines will make it easier for developers to determine costs of projects on BLM land. Otteni even feels the PEIS may make it easier for developers to site a project on federal land rather than private land, because they deal with one landowner and a known quantity in the permitting process.

"We've had an unbelievable amount of interest," he says. Currently the agency has 122 applications from project developers for siting commercial-grade wind power stations.

Clipper Windpower is developing a project in California on BLM land using the proposed guidelines in something of a test case. The company's Peter Sticker says the process has simplified development compared to conducting a full EIS. But even with the streamlined process, he says, standards for environmental review on BLM lands remains higher than for most privately held sites.

On the other hand, BLM lands can make siting transmission lines easier, since only one landowner is involved. In addition, he says, the BLM has acted as a facilitator in working with other governmental agencies. "Of the [federal] agencies we've dealt with, the BLM is actively interested in understanding the wind business," says Sticker. "They're very supportive of wind in general."

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