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Boise conference focuses on the energy transition on public lands

Solar panels
Bureau of Land Management
A solar field in the California desert.

The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University hosts an annual environmental conference. This year's program, on April 16, focuses on the risks and opportunities for Western public lands amid the clean energy transition.

Last week, the Biden Administration announced it had surpassed its goal to permit 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025. Several wind and solar projects are proposed in Idaho, including the Lava Ridge Wind Project in the Magic Valley.

Reporter Rachel Cohen spoke with Emily Wakild, the Cecil Andrus endowed chair for the Environment and Public Lands and a professor at Boise State University, about the conference.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Cohen: Why focus on this topic and why now?

Emily Wakild: What we're seeing is that the electricity sector is rapidly increasing its proportion of low carbon resources in response to technological innovations and cost reductions, and also climate change. The legacy infrastructure and policies that have supported that are being challenged and in need of adaptation. Because Idaho has such a high percentage of its footprint as public lands, we're interested in moving forward the conversation about how this transition is taking place on, near and with public lands and public land managers.

RC: Why are public lands important to discussions about how the energy transition is taking shape?

EW: Public lands take up a lot of space and so do wind and solar developments. So, if you're looking around the West for where you can site wind and solar, one of the biggest answers is on public lands. That's not the only answer. And I think some of the most creative ideas about wind and solar are over brownfields or lands that have been sort of used for other purposes that could be reused for these energy developments. But the footprint of public lands in the West and the need for the development, especially of wind and solar, conjoin, and there are also abundant wind and solar resources that are on public lands in Idaho and across the West. So this conjunction of both resources and space brings both challenges and opportunities.

RC: How would you explain the major trade offs on this issue?

Ew: One of the most interesting things is that if we get the energy equation right, so much else falls into place. So, if we can just do the energy well, then, we can avert some of the worst aspects of climate change. We can have the lifestyle that we know and understand. But even in doing that, every form of energy has trade offs. And who bears those trade offs, I think, has to be part of the conversation, while still being reasonable. That doesn't mean that we hold out for the one silver bullet that means there's nobody that has to sacrifice a part of the landscape that they love, or the scenery that's important to them, or the animals and the critters that live underneath that energy.

RC: Is there any one speaker that you are particularly excited to hear from?

EW: I am particularly excited to hear from Janet Scott, who is the senior counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Land and Mineral Management, which sounds like a lot, but she's our expert on siting and understanding the ways that the Department of Interior thinks at a high level about how to make decisions nationwide about our public land. I'm also excited to hear from Adam Richens, who's the chief operating officer of Idaho Power. I think Idaho Power will also give us a demonstration of the ways that they're adapting to meet these new climate demands and also consumer demands at the same time.

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.
As host of Morning Edition, I'm the luckiest person I've ever known because I spend my days listening to smart, passionate, engaging people. It’s a public trust. I lean in to talk with actors, poets, writers and volunteers who make Idaho that much more special.

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