The Bureau of Land Management is exploring utility-scale solar development in Montana as part of a larger White House initiative to use federal land to fight climate change. The agency is seeking input on the feasibility of such projects through the end of February.
The BLM administers more than eight million acres of land in Montana, making it the state’s second-largest federal land manager. More commonly associated with oil and gas leases than solar development, the agency’s January announcement that it’s seeking public input on Montana-based solar projects is reflective of President Joe Biden’s broader climate agenda.
There are currently no Montana-based solar projects on BLM land, but the bureau has approved 41 solar projects capable of producing more than nine gigawatts of energy in other states, primarily in the Southwest.
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The BLM is using the plan that guided those projects, the Western Solar Plan, as a starting point to explore utility-scale solar in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington as part of a larger Interior Department directive to put another 25 gigawatts of renewable energy projects sited on public land in the pipeline by 2025. Twenty-five gigawatts is roughly enough electricity to power five million homes for a year.
Agency representatives held two public meetings earlier this month to garner public input on what large-scale solar projects could look like in Montana. More specifically, the agency is soliciting input on how it should define “utility scale” and which metrics it should use to evaluate a site’s suitability for solar (e.g., access to existing energy infrastructure or the presence of sensitive ecological areas).
In a heavily scripted meeting held at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center on Feb. 2, Leslie Hill, a Department of Justice attorney who’s assisting the BLM with its solar expansion, said there are no “preordained conclusions” at this stage in the process.
Hill said it’s important to the BLM that its renewable projects are well-planned and balanced against its responsibilities to consider impacts to ecological, cultural and historic resources. This stage is intended to garner comment at the 30,000-foot, programmatic scale rather than project scale, she said.
Most of the attendees at the Billings meeting affirmed the agency’s commitment to exploring solar, although former Billings lawmaker Doug Kary expressed skepticism about the agency’s ability to meet its 2025 target and said “absolutely not” in reference to whether the agency should use incentives to encourage participation from renewable energy developers.
“You’re already going to give them rocket-bottom prices to lease the land, because that’s what you do, so no incentives other than that,” Kary said. “If they’re going to sell the energy, they need to pay for it.”
“Your timeline, in my estimation, is way hell and gone,” Kary continued. “It ain’t gonna happen.”
Attendees also honed in on other pieces of the proposal, ranging from public health and the country’s transition to a “more equitable clean energy economy” to labor market, recreation and wildlife impacts.
Lori Byron with Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate said she supports incentivizing development in solar energy projects, “especially in our state, where sometimes solar and renewable energy aren’t favored or incentivized.”
“Increasing renewable energy will improve the health of kids in the short term by lessening the amount of particulate matter in the air from burning fossil fuels,” Byron said. “It will also be good for children because good jobs will be created, and one of the strongest determinants of health is having a family with a livable income.”
Nels Johnson, a senior adviser in The Nature Conservancy’s renewable energy program, recommended that the agency take into consideration the long-term impacts of solar development.
“It’s one thing to build them, but in 20, 30, 40 years from now, some of them will be decommissioned and we should have a plan for that,” he said.
Johnson also requested that the BLM minimize impacts to the natural environment and local communities, and lower the threshold for what’s considered a utility-scale project down to five megawatts.
In a follow-up email to Montana Free Press, BLM spokesperson Brian Hires said each megawatt of energy produced requires between five and 10 acres of land, depending on the specifics of the project. A 200-megawatt facility — the threshold for what’s large enough to be considered “utility scale” under the Western Solar Plan — requires between 1,000 and 4,000 acres, Hires said.
Jake Schwaller with the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said at the meeting Feb. 2 that he “absolutely supports” what the BLM is doing but would appreciate assurances that the agency will consider ungulate winter range and the potential to adversely impact public land access and outdoor recreation economies in its analysis.
Rebecca Riedl, the Montana field representative for Laborer’s International Union of North America, said her union and others are supportive of “responsible renewable energies” but would like the BLM to ensure that lease-holders pay the prevailing wage and tap local labor pools first for construction.
The second public meeting was hosted online on Feb. 13.
The comment period for the initial scoping phase of the project closes March 1, and the agency plans to release a draft Environmental Impact Statement later this summer, followed by a final EIS in the spring of 2024. If all goes as planned, the BLM will issue a record of decision by the summer of 2024 and start accepting bids shortly thereafter.
Editor’s Note: The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers provided additional information to Montana Free Press on Feb. 28 regarding its position on federal energy development. BHA’s goal in engaging with the BLM is to provide habitat- and access-related recommendations “if and when” renewable energy projects move forward on public lands, the organization said.
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