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BLM releases strategy to prioritize, reduce conflicts in Idaho's renewable energy projects

Wild farm in Idaho.jpg
Douglas Barnes
U.S. Department of Energy
Power County Wind Farm in Power County, Idaho

The Bureau of Land Management in Idaho has introduced a plan to streamline early-stage evaluations of a growing number of renewable energy projects in the pipeline.

The Lava Ridge Wind Project, which would be Idaho’s largest wind farm, was first proposed in 2018. At the time, it was the state’s inaugural renewable energy proposal for public lands. Now, the BLM is assessing nine solar and two wind project applications, along with three wind speed testing requests – a preliminary step for companies considering specific design submissions.

This surge in renewable applications, primarily located near existing and planned transmission lines in south central and southwest Idaho, coincides with the BLM’s national objective of permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025.

It has also meant an increased workload for agency staff. To more efficiently process and prioritize applications, the BLM released the “Idaho Renewable Energy Strategy.”

“Our objective is to use early input from stakeholder groups to identify renewable projects that have the greatest technical and financial feasibility, and the least anticipated conflicts to the natural and cultural resources that are on the public lands,” said Kasey Prestwich, the renewable energy program manager for the BLM in Idaho.

Under this strategy, developers must submit a new report called a “Renewable Energy Factors Analysis.” It requires developers to address current land use and existing restrictions in the proposed project area. That could include land use plans for endangered species like sage grouse, recreational usage or livestock grazing permits.

While impacts to wildlife, local economies and cultural sites are already evaluated during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, developers are now required to submit this Idaho-specific report before proceeding to the NEPA review stage.

The requirement does not apply to the Lava Ridge Wind Project – only to proposals that have not yet reached the NEPA review – but the controversy surrounding this project has informed the agency’s approach to mitigate conflicts going forward, Karen Kelleher, the Idaho BLM director, said during a public meeting about the new strategy earlier this year.

“The stakeholders, the local governments and our state agencies want to be involved in the process early,” Prestwich reiterated in an interview.

This could help resolve potential issues at the outset, he said.

However, the BLM’s Idaho strategy does not go so far as to map areas most suitable for, or off limits to, renewable energy development, as the agency did in a 2012 solar development plan for the southwest. Still, projects in critical habitat areas for threatened and endangered species, for example, are classified as “low priority” and placed further down the queue.

The BLM also held three in-person open houses in Idaho and one virtual one this winter and spring to discuss the strategy and gather comments on renewable energy development on public lands.

The feedback gathered through that process is summarized in a document that the agency said developers can use to inform their applications.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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