Part Seven

11 Renewable Energy Development in the American West

Anna Karmazina


U.S. energy system configurations are changing at an unprecedented rate. Increasing environmental concerns and energy security worries, as well as falling prices, have contributed to the growth of renewable energy in the U.S. Because renewable energy has become more feasible to develop over the past decade, it now competes more successfully against fossil fuels. Given that this trend is likely to continue, more land will be required to site renewable energy projects. Public lands cover large portions of the American West, and therefore, the issue of renewable energy siting on Western public lands carries great significance.

Davis (2001) identifies three factors that explain the dynamics of fossil energy development on public lands: 1) interest group tensions; 2) political party configurations; and 3) bureaucratic procedures. The first two factors are contested areas. First, the divergence of interests among industry groups and environmentalists results in lobbying battles over preferable policy outcomes. Second, partisanship influences the course of action in the energy policy domain – generally Republicans tend to adopt pro-business policies that favor fossil fuel industry, while Democrats tend to be more attentive to environmental consequences.

Compared to fossil fuel policy dynamics, renewable energy policy developments are to some extent less contentious yet present some unique challenges. In terms of interest group involvement, both business and environmental coalitions generally support renewable energy development. However, as illustrated below, a unique phenomenon of clashes between environmental groups—known as the “green versus green” phenomenon—has been growing recently (Yonk et al.2013). Furthermore, despite overall public support for renewable energy development, some local communities do not welcome such development proposals (Pierce and Steel 2017). In terms of political party alignments, renewable energy enjoys bipartisan support because it helps achieve both environmental goals as well as national energy security and economic development goals.Finally, federal agencies responsible for project permitting processes have been active in improving and expediting procedures pertaining to siting of renewable energy.

This chapter proceeds as follows: First, a synopsis of the legislative shift toward renewable energy development is depicted. Second, an overview of regulatory regimes regarding solar, wind, geothermal and biomass development on public lands is presented. Third, a snapshot of solar, wind, geothermal and biomass developments on Western public lands is provided. Next, a section on controversy regarding renewable energy siting on public lands is outlined, including case studies of wind and geothermal energy projects siting.

Movement toward Renewable Energy Development

Simon and Bernell (2016) maintain that energy systems in the U.S. have a major task of ensuring energy security, further specifying the following four goals in that task. The first is to safeguard abundance of energy resources that can guarantee widespread access to energy. The second goal for the energy system actors is to guarantee reliability, which implies that consumers will continue to have undisrupted access to energy sources. The third goal is to assure affordability of energy sources, i.e., to ensure that customers have access to energy at reasonable and predicted costs. The fourth goal is to achieve the system’s sustainability. Goal priorities can also change over time. In the early 20th century, the main goal was to provide access to electricity at affordable prices. More recently, concerns over dangers posed by climate change have elevated the importance of energy sustainability.

Advanced energy systems are often associated with societal progress; yet they are also responsible for negative consequences. Burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) contributes tonegative health-related impacts.In addition, climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions associated with the burning of fossil fuels is also an enormous and challenging global issue. The Fifth Assessment Report prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that “human influence on the climate system is clear and growing” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014). A decrease in the use of fossil fuels and an increase of renewable energy generation can reduce both negative health-related impacts and carbon dioxide emissions.

External shocks and crises also significantly impact energy policy. According to Grossman (2015, p. 57), “in the United States progress on energy policy requires a crisis.” In response to the energy crisis of 1973 caused by an oil embargo declared by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the US Congress passed the National Energy Act of 1978. The Act aimed to reduce the country’s dependency on fossil fuels by supporting the domestic development of alternative fuel sources and promoting energy efficiency and conservation. One of the most important sections of the Act was the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which brought significant changes to thegoverning mechanisms of the U.S. electricity sector. Most notably, PURPA created a regulatory framework enabling electricity production from renewable sources by non-utility players. The legislation was resisted by traditional energy players, who questioned the legality of PURPA in court. The Supreme Court decision ultimately upheld the rule (Shively and Ferrare 2008).

Given the great importance of having stable and sufficient sources of energy, the Arab oil embargo was a disruptive force for a global economy deeply dependent on energy: “The embargo also sparked a fundamental shift in the definition of energy supply, from a solely technological problem to a bundle of social ones” (Rosa et al. 1988, p. 164). Since the 1970s (following the first oil embargo), the issue of energy diversification became more critical. Concerns over unimpeded access to energy sources and issues pertaining to the finite nature of fossil fuels led to policies aimed to diversify energy production.

The Persian Gulf War of 1990-1991 and several abrupt oil price increases in the late 1980s and early 1990s once again demonstrated the importance of stable access to energy resources. To further enhance resource diversification and domestic renewable energy production, the U.S. Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The act created financial assistance for renewable energy development and incentives for the commercialization of renewable energy technologies. Among other provisions, the Act introduced a number of significant regulatory changes that set the state for the deregulation of the energy sector. A host of new players emerged in the energy market, including independent power producers procuring renewable energy sources (Shively and Ferrare 2008).

In addition to significant changes in energy policy due to shocks and crises, substantial modifications can occur without major external disruptions. Mahoney and Thelen (2010, p. 2) underline that incremental endogenous processes can bring about shifts in a policy subsystem. Incremental policy changes cumulatively work toward accomplishing a larger goal (i.e., different institutional changes and policy initiatives increase the prospects for energy sustainability). Governments adopt a broad range of policies that impact energy markets, including financial incentives and regulations affecting energy production and actions limiting or altering consumption patterns (Geri and McNabb 2016).

In the 1970s environmentalists achieved significant progress in pushing for environmental legislation. A number of major environmental protection acts were adopted during that time, including: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Forest Management Act. Several policy provisions have also incrementally increased the utilization of renewable energy sources. First, federal financial incentives – Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC) and Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC) – have had a goal to increase the share of renewable energy in the national energy mix. Second, the adoption of regulatory mandates (Renewable Portfolio Standards or Renewable Portfolio Goals) by U.S. states have stimulated the use of renewable energy technologies. All eleven Western States, except for Idaho and Wyoming, have regulatory policies in place mandating that electric utilities operating in the state procure a certain percentage of electricity using renewable energy sources by a certain year. The most ambitious Renewable Portfolio Standard was adopted by the California State Legislature in 2018, which increased the required level of renewables from 50% to 60% by 2030 and introduced an additional target of 100% of electricity from renewable energy resources and zero-carbon resources by 2045 (California Public Utilities Commission 2019). However, in some states (e.g., Utah) the regulatory provisions are not mandatory and require that utilities procure a certain percentage of renewable energy only if it is “cost-effective” (DSIRE 2018).

In addition to federal and state measures, regional agreements have promoted the use of renewable energy. The West Coast Governors’ Global Warming Initiativeof 2003 and the succeeding Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energyof 2013 signed by the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington and the Premier of British Columbia have demonstrated the regional agreement to coordinate efforts in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources. The governors from the aforementioned jurisdictions have also actively participated in the Governors’ Global Climate Summitsheld in partnership with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) (Pierce and Steel 2017).

History of Regulatory Context

The U.S. Department of the Interior, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Minerals Management Service (MMS), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as well as the U.S. Forest Service, are the main managers of public lands that host a majority of renewable energy projects. The BLM authorizes wind and solar energy development; in turn, geothermal energy projects are processed by the BLM, the MMS, and the USGS; and biomass energy development is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Several federal policy acts comprise the regulatory base for the permitting process of renewable energy projects. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 ensures the preservation of historical and cultural foundations. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the National Forest Management Act of 1976 guarantee environmental protection. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 establishes procedures for the management of public lands. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 incentivizes renewable energy development on public lands. The Geothermal Steam Act of 1970 regulates the authorization process of geothermal energy projects. Table 1 provides a list of major policy acts affecting renewable energy development on public lands.

The federal government has encouraged renewable energy development on public lands in a number of ways. Section 211 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 signed into law by President George W. Bush mandates that “the Secretary of the Interior should, before the end of the 10-year period beginning on the date of enactment of this Act, seek to have approved non-hydropower renewable energy projects located on the public lands with a generation capacity of at least 10,000 megawatts of electricity” (Public Law 109-58). President Obama’s Climate Action Plan of 2013 directed the U.S. Department of the Interior to permit 10,000 megawatts of renewables on public lands by 2020 (in addition to previously mandating 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2012, which was achieved by the U.S. Department of the Interior ahead of schedule) (Executive Office of the President 2013).

Wind and Solar

Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, as amended, and Title 43 of the Code of Federal Regulations authorize the permitting process of wind and solar energy projects under rights-of-way grants (Bureau of Land Management 2019a). In addition, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and the Tribal Consultation requirements regulate siting procedures of wind and solar energy projects.

In 2005, the BLM issued the Wind Energy Development Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that provided guidelines for assessing environmental impacts of wind energy development on public lands in the Western U.S. (Bureau of Land Management 2005). In addition, in 2008 the BLM released guidelines on processing wind energy authorizations and summaries of best management practices of wind energy siting, which aimed at mitigating the impact on avian habitat and other potential wildlife threat as well as alleviating any resource conflicts (Bureau of Land Management 2018b).

The West-Wide Wind Mapping Project is an example of the BLM’s effort to identify areas with high wind energy generation potential and low resource conflict to make siting process less complicated. The West-Wide Wind Mapping Project identifies areas across 11 states of the American West that: (1) possess high potential for wind energy generation; (2) areas located in land use exclusions zones; and (3) areas that elicit high environmental concerns and generate other potential resource conflicts (West-Wide Wind Mapping Project 2019). This systematic classification of public lands helps the stakeholders anticipate possible siting complications.

There are restrictions in terms of the type of land that can be utilized for renewable energy development. For example, lands located within the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System face restrictions for solar energy development; likewise, lands located within Areas of Critical Environmental Concern may be unavailable for solar energy development (Bureau of Land Management 2018a). In 2007, the BLM issued an Instruction Memorandum (IM) for the processing of right-of-way applications for solar energy development projects on public lands, superseding the agency’s Solar Energy Development Policy of 2004. The IM explicated in a great detail the authorization process in the hope to encourage renewable energy development according to the goals of the National Energy Policy of 2001 and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as well as to ensure environmentally responsible developments (Bureau of Land Management 2007).

In 2012, the BLM launched the Solar Energy Program (known as the Western Solar Plan) to facilitate utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in six Southwestern states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah). The program was based on the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS) prepared by the BLM and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as well as nineteen cooperating agencies, including various federal-, state-, and county-level entities. More than 200,000 public comments were received on a series of drafts of this document (Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Energy 2012). Solar PEIS established systematic guidelines designed to make the permitting process of utility-scale solar energy projects more efficient and maximize the mitigation of potential environmental impacts (Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Department of Energy 2012).

In addition, the BLM identified 19 Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) in six Southwestern states as areas “well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy, where the BLM will prioritize solar energy and associated transmission infrastructure development” (Bureau of Land Management 2014). If fully developed, SEZs would provide 27,000 megawatts of solar energy, which is equivalent to the amount of energy necessary to power about 8 million homes (U.S. Department of the Interior 2016). Figure 1 shows the locations of the BLM’s 19 Solar Energy Zones (Bureau of Land Management 2014).

Figure 1. Solar Energy Zones. Source: Bureau of Land Management (2014)
Figure 1: Solar Energy Zones.
Source: Bureau of Land Management (2014)

In 2017, the BLM amended existing regulatory guidelines for wind and solar energy development on public lands by enacting the Solar and Wind Rule. The rule expanded the BLM’s prerogative to employ a competitive bidding processes on lands for wind and solar development. It also brought the BLM fee structure for new wind and solar energy development in line with existing market conditions (Bureau of Land Management 2019b). In addition, the rule promoted the development of designated leasing areas (DLAs) that would be preferred for solar and wind energy development. These areas would have high energy generation potential, access to transmission lines, and low resource conflict (Bureau of Land Management 2016). In short, this provision aimed to simplify the application process and enhance renewable energy development at sites with fewer resource conflicts (Block 2016).


The Geothermal Steam Act of 1970, as amended, regulates the authorization process of geothermal energy projects on public lands under competitive leasing procedures (Bureau of Land Management 2019a). The Energy Policy Act of 2005 substantially amended the Geothermal Steam Act. Section 225 of the Act required the BLM and the Forest Service to issue an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to advance coordination in the leasing and permitting process of geothermal energy applications. The MOU, officially issued in 2006, focused on reducing the lease application backlog by 90 percent in 5 years and established a shared database for tracking applications (Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service 2006).

Section 226 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 required the USGS to update a geothermal resource assessment first introduced in 1978. The assessment projected the region’s total geothermal energy potential and identified areas with the most geothermal energy development promise (Aird 2006). Figure 2 illustrates geothermal energy generation potential in the American West (Williams et al.2008).

Figure 2. Electric power generation potential of moderate-temperature and high-temperature geothermal resources represented by a black dot. Source: Williams et al. (2008)
Figure 2: Electric power generation potential of moderate-temperature and high-temperature geothermal resources represented by a black dot.
Source: Williams et al. (2008)


In 2003, an interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Energy established the Biomass Research and Development Board with the goal to promote wood biomass development (Aird 2006).Section 210 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized grants for biomass energy projects (guaranteeing $20 per green ton of biomass delivered). These projects were to be located in preferred communities, including areas near federal lands “at significant risk of catastrophic wildfire, disease, or insect infestation or which suffers from disease or insect infestation” (Public Law 109-58). To establish eligibility for the federal grants, Section 210 of the Act defined biomass as “nonmerchantable materials or precommercial thinnings that are byproducts of preventive treatments, such as trees, wood, brush, thinnings, chips, and slash, that are removed – (A) to reduce hazardous fuels; (B) to reduce or contain disease or insect infestation; or (C) to restore forest health.”(Public Law 109-58).

Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Biomass Energy Developments on Western Public Lands

Wind Energy

Wind energy is the U.S.’s largest sources of renewable energy besides hydropower. The first utility-scale wind energy project on public lands was approved by the Bureau of Land Management in 1982 – the 40-MW Cabazon Wind Energy Facility in Riverside County, CA. As of November 2018, the BLM had approved 35 wind energy projects located on public lands with a total capacity of 3,249 MW, which is sufficient to power about 1 million homes. Twenty-eight of the approved projects are in California having a total capacity of 944 MW; 2 projects are in Wyoming with a total capacity of 1,521 MW; 2 projects are in Arizona with a total capacity of 530 MW; 2 projects are in Utah with a total capacity of 100 MW; 1 project is in Nevada with a capacity of 150 MW; and 1 project is in Oregon with a capacity of 4 MW. The approved projects range widely in size and capacity – from the 3-MW wind energy facilities in California to the 1,500-MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project in Carbon County, Wyoming (Bureau of Land Management 2019e).

Solar Energy

The Southwestern U.S. possesses tremendous solar energy potential. The first utility-scale solar energy project on public lands was approved by the BLM in 2010 – the 50-MW Silver State North thin film photovoltaic system in Clark County, NV. As of November 2018, the Bureau of Land Management approved 28 solar energy projects located on public lands with a total capacity of 7,171 MW, which is sufficient to power about 2 million homes. Sixteen of the approved projects are in California having a total capacity of 5,261 MW; 9 projects are in Nevada with a total capacity of 1,430 MW; 2 projects are in Arizona with a total capacity of 400 MW; 1 project is in Wyoming with a capacity of 80 MW. The approved projects range widely in size and capacity – from the 20-MW Ocotillo Sol photovoltaic system on 100 acres of public lands in Imperial County, CA to the 750-MW McCoy Solar Project on 7,700 acres of public lands in Riverside County, CA (750 MW approved and 250 MW in operation) and the 550-MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm on 4,165 acres of public lands in Riverside County, CA (all 550 MW are in operation) (Bureau of Land Management 2019d).

Geothermal Energy

California possesses the largest amount of geothermal energy potential in the U.S. because it is located on the Pacific’s “ring of fire” and because of tectonic plate conjunctions (California Energy Commission 2019). The first utility-scale geothermal energy project on public lands was approved by the BLM in 1978 – the 30-MW Geysers Units 5&6, and the 30-MW Geysers Units 7&8 in Lake County, CA. As of March of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management approved 50 geothermal energy projects located on public lands with a total capacity of 1,648 MW. Out of all approved projects, 25 projects are in California with a total capacity of 664 MW, 21 projects are located in Nevada with a total capacity of 867 MW, 2 projects are located in Utah with a total capacity of 70 MW, 1 project with a capacity of 32 MW is located in Idaho, 1 project with a capacity of 15 MW is located in New Mexico. The approved projects widely range in size and capacity – from the smallest 4-MW San Emidio geothermal plant in Washoe County, NV to the largest 120-MW Salt Wells Vulcan projects in Churchill County, NV (Bureau of Land Management 2019c).

Biomass Energy

The Energy Information Administration (2018) reported that about 2% of U.S. energy consumption in 2017 was from wood and wood waste. Shelly (2011) identifies several sources of woody biomass, including: 1) non-timber tree removal (dead trees and trees preventing land and urban development); 2) forest management (small-diameter tree removal related to hazard fuel treatment, pre-commercial thinning related to timber production, and forest health improvement); 3) timber harvesting residues; 4) wood manufacturing residues (sawdust, bark, defective wood pieces); 5) fast growing tree plantations. Western states significantly differ in the extent of wood biomass utilization: Pacific coastal states utilize significantly larger amounts of woody biomass compared to the Rocky Mountain region and the four corner states (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico) (Nicholls et al.2018). Thirty twoelectric generating facilities that use woody biomass feedstocks are located in western states with a total capacity of847 MW, including 18 facilities in California with a total capacity of 457 MW, 6 facilities in Washington with a total capacity of 193 MW, 5 facilities in Oregon with a total capacity of 156 MW, 1 facility in Arizona with a total capacity of 27 MW, 1 facility in Colorado with a total capacity of 11.5 MW, and 1 facility in Montana with a total capacity of 3 MW (Nicholls et al. 2018). In the Western U.S., issues pertaining to forest have been strongly debated topics for decades and environmental opposition has occurred to proposals for biomass energy facilities (Sundstrom et al.2012).

Renewable Energy Siting Controversy

Despite wide public support for renewable energy development, in some cases the siting of renewable energy facilities proves problematic due to opposition from surrounding communities and environmental organizations. Specifically, the siting of wind energy farms has sparked a significant amount of controversy. This controversy occurs when local ecosystems or the quality of life of the surrounding community are threatened (Pierce and Steel 2017).

Opposition toward wind energy projects has been extensively studied by scholars around the world examining European, Canadian, U.S., and New Zealand contexts. Scholars identified several groups of factors that help explain opposition to proposed projects. First, procedural factors have an effect on how proposed projects are perceived by the surrounding communities. Trust in developers and government agencies is likely to increase the project’s acceptance. In addition, community member perceptions on whether decisions are made in an unbiased manner and whether communities treated fairly determine attitudes toward the project development process (Bidwell 2013). Second, the distribution of positive and negative outcomes of wind energy development on the surrounding community affects the project siting process. Among positive outcomes are the creation of new local jobs and increased tax revenue, while negative outcomes include (visual and noise pollution), wildlife threats, public health and safety issues, local infrastructure damage, and decreasing property values (Jones and Eiser 2010; Fischlein et al.2010; Groth and Vogt 2014). Finally, community-unique contextual factors play a role in the siting process (for instance, past community experiences with energy facility siting and differences in community identity). Devine-Wright (2009) argues that community place attachment and symbolic meanings influence attitudes toward wind energy projects.

Environmental organizations occasionally fight renewable energy developments when they are seen as damaging to local ecosystems (Pierce and Steel 2017). For instance, the Audubon Society has opposed wind and solar energy projects on the basis of potential negative avian impacts—an example of a so-called “green versus green” clash (Yonk et al.2013). However, in some cases, the bio-centric environmental organizations coordinate efforts with developers and regulators in the search of appropriate habitat mitigation solutions.

Giordono et al.(2018) conducted a systematic analysis of 53 proposals for wind energy development in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington to identify the amount of opposition and understand the processes that affect it. The research concluded that “while some level of local opposition to wind proposals is not rare, it is typically restricted to more benign activities that require few resources and take place in standard institutional settings” (Giordono et al.2018, p. 119). Specifically, in most cases opposition was represented by writing letters-to-the-editor and providing comments on drafts of Environmental Impact Assessments, while protests and lawsuits were rare forms of opposition. The following case studies will further illustrate this phenomenon.

The Case of Cotterel Mountain Wind Energy Project

In 2001, Boise-based Windland, Inc., in partnership with Shell Wind Energy, filed a right-of-way application to build a 200-MW Cotterel Mountain in Cassia County, Idaho. The project site was located mainly on public lands, which were managed by the BLM. Residents of Albion, Idaho, a nearby town, became concerned with potential visual impacts, wildlife threats, and negative economic effects associated with the proposed wind energy facility. Twelve residents joined their efforts in opposing the project and created the “Committee against Windmills in Albion.” The group gathered 224 signatures to sign a petition against the project (Giordono et al.2018).

In 2005, the Draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued and made available to the public. Seventy-two written comments were submitted during the comment period. The comments raised a number of issues related to the proposed project. Several key issues were addressed in detail: sage-grouse habitat conservation, protection of tribal treaty rights, mitigation of potential impacts on migratory birds and threatened or endangered species, maintaining public access to the land, protection of visual resources, and ensuring consistency with the Cassia County Resource Management Plan of 1985. About 20 other issues and concerns were considered, although not as extensively as the key issues. In 2006, the BLM prepared the Final Environmental Impact Statement specifying the agency’s preferred alternative: the project to be constructed with actions taken to mitigate wildlife issues and concerns (Bureau of Land Management 2006). However, in 2012, the developers decided not to proceed with the project and withdrew their application. In summary, this case is an example of the trade-offs between the needs to produce low-carbon energy sources and the potential negative impacts on a surrounding community and ecosystem. In addition, this is also an example of a low level opposition toward wind energy projects.

The Case of Newberry Crater Geothermal Energy Project

Geothermal energy is an important energy source because it emits low levels of air pollution and carbon dioxide. Compared to power plants that use fossil fuels, geothermal power plants emit 97% less sulfur compounds, which contribute to acid rains, and 99% less carbon dioxide, which drives climate change (U.S. Energy Information Administration 2018). At the same time, geothermal energy provides a consistent energy supply, unlike solar and wind energy sources that are intermittent in their nature. However, some geothermal energy projects have sparked controversy due to potential local environmental impacts (Pierce and Steel 2017). The Case of Newberry Crater Geothermal Energy Project details how siting processes occur.

The proposed site for the Newberry Crater Geothermal energy project is located in central Oregon, near the Newberry Volcano, about 20 miles southeast of Bend, Oregon. The project has had a long development history but has not been built to date. The project has been developed by Davenport Power and AltaRock Energy in partnership with a wide range of organizations such as the University of Oregon, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of Utah, Texas A&M, Temple University, the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon State University, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, GE Global Research, and Statoil (Petty 2010, Grasso 2016).

Several government bodies have overseen the project’s permitting process, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Oregon Department of Energy and several other Oregon agencies (Petty 2010). A number of policy and regulatory actshave comprised the regulatory base for the permitting process: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Geothermal Steam Act of 1970, the National Forest Management Act of 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Geothermal Leasing in the Western US of 2008. In addition, in 1990 Congress issued an act that established the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The Act restricted geothermal energy development inside the Monument and provided guidance for geothermal development in the adjacent areas (Public Law 101-522).

In 2007, Davenport Power obtained a permit from the BLM for an exploratory well drilling program. The program involved road maintenance and pad preparation (three five-acre well pads), which required clearing trees and compacting the ground. The well pads were situated on federal geothermal leases west of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument (Davenport Power 2008). In 2008, the developer submitted a Notice of Intent to obtain a site certificate for a geothermal energy facility with a 35-45 MW capacity and a 12-mile transmission line to a Bonneville Power Administration substation near the town of La Pine, Oregon. The proposed project site was located outside of the Newberry National Volcanic Monument(Oregon Department of Energy 2008). Several public meetings were held by the government agencies to familiarize the public with the proposed project and siting procedures (Davenport Power 2008).

In 2009, Davenport Energy in partnership with AltaRock received a $21 million federal matching grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the development of the Newberry Enhanced Geothermal System (EGS) Demonstration Project.The goal of the project was to test the EGS technology with the possibility of applying it later at other sites. The developers submitted to the BLM a Notice of Intent (NOI) for developing the Demonstration Project to test the EGS technology. As required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the project was subject to environmental analysis, conducted by the BLM, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Department of Energy. A number of public meetings were held at different locations in Central Oregon (La Pine, Sunriver, and Bend) (Bureau of Land Management 2011). The BLM issued a Draft Environmental Assessment, which received seven comments from NGOs and government entities (the Klamath Tribe, Region 10 of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Oregon Wild, Central Oregon Land Watch, Blue Mountain Biodiversity Project, Leaning Pine Ranch) and four comments from private individuals (Bureau of Land Management 2011). The Final Environmental Assessment identified several “key issues” regarding the project development: 1) Safety of the EGS technology; 2) Issues related to water quantity and water quality; 3) Earthquake risks; 4) Impacts to the Newberry National Volcanic Monument; 5) Potential visual impact; and 6) Threats to wildlife. Figure 3 presents the Newberry Enhanced Geothermal System Demonstration Project site (Grasso 2016).

Figure 3. Newberry Enhanced Geothermal System Demonstration Project Site. Source: Grasso (2016)
Figure 3: Newberry Enhanced Geothermal System Demonstration Project Site.
Source: Grasso (2016)

As required by the National Environmental Policy Act, the BLM, the Forest Service, and the Department of Energy conducted the Environmental Assessment to either issue a Finding of NoSignificant Impact (FONSI) or to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). In April 2012, the authorities issued a FONSI concluding that no significant environmental impacts would take place. As a result, the developers were allowed to begin construction of the Newberry Enhanced Geothermal System Demonstration Project (Bureau of Land Management 2012). The Demonstration Project has the goal of providing information on the economic viability of developing a 35 MW geothermal energy facility at the Newberry site. Currently, the NEWGEN (Newberry Geothermal Energy) team, a joint partnership of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Oregon State University, and AltaRock Energy, continues efforts to make progress on the project, although no final date has been issued for its completion. Obtaining adequate financial resources for the project remains a significant challenge (AltaRock Energy 2019).


Renewable energy development is on the rise in the U.S.  More public lands, especially in the American west, will be identified as possible sites of renewable energy projects. Development of solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy is a less contentious area compared to development of fossil fuels. Both business and environmental coalitions are largely in favor of renewable energy development. In addition, renewable energy generally enjoys bipartisan support because it serves several societal goals (i.e., national energy security, economic development, and environmental goals). Furthermore, federal agencies responsible for permitting of renewable energy projects, have made significant efforts to create more efficient siting procedures and mitigate potential negative impacts associated with renewable energy developments. Yet siting of renewable energy projects occasionally meets some unique challenges. Specifically, environmental organizations and local communities in some cases oppose proposed projects. Several factors may play a role in increased contentiousness: 1) procedural factors (lack of trust and unfair siting procedures); 2) factors related to uneven distribution of positive and negative outcomes associated with renewable energy developments; and 3) community-unique contextual factors. Thus, scholars and policy makers should stay attuned to the challenge of finding a balance between the need to produce low-carbon energy sources and mitigating impacts on local communities and the ecosystem.


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