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Feds plan to add land in Western states to potential expansion of solar energy

A worker is seen among a field of solar panels.
Sirisak Boakaew, Getty Images
More federal land in places like Idaho and Oregon could be used for solar energy production according to updated plans from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management announces land in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming could be used for renewable projects

Millions of acres of federal public land in five Western states, including Idaho, could be opened up to solar energy production.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday that more land in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming is needed to support rising demand for clean energy and to meet President Joe Biden’s target of a 100% clean electricity grid by 2035.

More than 5 million acres of land in the five states would be added to an Obama-era plan that expanded permitting for solar projects on federal land in six other states. Bureau managers said they would make the permitting process on the land faster and easier because it’s already been developed or identified as posing a low risk of conflict with wildlife and critical habitat.

The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.

The 2012 Western Solar Plan expanded siting for solar energy projects on federal lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. With the addition of five more states, up to 22 million acres of federal land could be opened for clean energy production. At least 700,000 acres of public land is needed to expand solar energy production by 2035, according to the bureau.

The proposal excludes 126 million acres of critical habitat, historic and recreation sites and old growth forests. Projects within 10 miles of existing or planned transmission lines would be prioritized for permitting, the bureau said.

A little over 50% of Oregon land is owned by the federal government and is managed primarily by the bureau and the U.S. Forest Service. About 3% of Oregon’s electricity has come from solar in recent years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In a statement posted online, the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Energy Industries Association welcomed the announcement and said it was long overdue.

“Under the current policy, there are at least 80 million acres of federal lands open to oil and gas development, which is 100 times the amount of public land available for solar. BLM’s proposal is a big step in the right direction and recognizes the key role solar plays in our energy economy,” it said.

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This story was originally published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.