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As feds push solar, a Wyoming group maps areas of least harm to wildlife

The Nature Conservancy is tapping local input to help identify "smart" siting for renewable energy in parallel with a federal push for solar farms.

The Sweetwater Solar facility, pictured Sept. 27 2022, straddles Highway 372 north of Green River. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Federal land managers are calling for public input on plans to select sites for solar energy projects in Wyoming, developments that — if poorly sited — could interrupt wildlife migrations or ruin critical habitats and cultural resources.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to reboot a 2012 initiative to attract more utility-scale solar energy development on federal lands, expanding its scope to include Wyoming among 10 other western states. One conservation group is already weighing in, drawing a map of where solar farms might have the least impact.

The BLM will host public scoping meetings Feb. 13 from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. (click here to register), and Feb. 14 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (click here to register). The deadline for public comment on the plan is March 1.

The effort is part of the Energy Act of 2020, which envisions developing 25,000 megawatts of new wind, solar and geothermal energy projects on public lands by 2025. Though much of the federal push for solar development is most likely to result in proposals targeting areas in southwestern states where the solar resource is best, there is growing interest to erect solar farms in Wyoming.

Home to some 18.4 million acres of BLM-managed surface, the state is best suited for utility-scale solar energy development in the southwest corner where there’s plenty of federal surface with easy access to the electrical grid, according to Justin Loyka, energy programs manager for The Nature Conservancy of Wyoming.

Not all of those lands are suitable for large photovoltaic facilities, however, because of their wildlife and other resource values, he said. But solar farms could be located in areas previously disturbed, such as oil and gas fields, to maximize local economic benefits and minimize impacts.

“We think there’s an abundance of low-impact spots for the development of solar energy in Wyoming — more than enough to meet market demand,” Loyka said.

Evaluating landscapes

Wyoming’s nascent commercial solar energy industry, which consists of two facilities in operation so far, has already provided an example of poor planning that harmed wildlife.

The Sweetwater Solar farm, located on BLM land north of Green River, straddles Highway 372 in an area that wildlife officials knew to be part of a pronghorn migratory route. After construction, wildlife biologists observed it created a bottleneck for the ungulates.

Such poor siting can and should be avoided, Loyka said. With more renewable energy development to come, The Nature Conservancy embarked on a West-wide effort to take inventory of public land values to learn where it makes sense to develop solar — as well as wind and other forms of renewable energy — and where the industrial development might clash with other land values. 

Because utility-scale solar energy farms are typically fenced off, they can “industrialize” the lands they occupy and even interrupt wildlife corridors that provide a lifeline between seasonal habitats, Loyka said. That’s why scrutiny is critical, he said.

“We think there’s an intelligent way of going about how this stuff hits the landscape,” Loyka said. “We want to see this smart-from-the-start planning that looks at both the resource value and the economic value of lands and how we can protect the most high-value areas such as wildlife habitat.”

TNC’s Power of Place study builds “energy modeling tools with the latest ecosystem and wildlife habitat data to advise the deployment of clean energy infrastructure across the West.” Although the work is far from complete, the study offers an optimistic view: “Western states can affordably and reliably meet all their future energy needs, achieve economy-wide net-zero greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2050, and avoid the loss of their most sensitive natural areas and working lands.”

Some protections against industrial development already exist for U.S. Forest Service lands, sage grouse core areas and other designated wildlife and wetlands habitats. Other areas without existing protections might also warrant avoidance, depending on local knowledge, Loyka said. But there remains room for suitable development.

Despite existing land-use evaluations and continuing modeling, any attempt to truly understand opportunities for “smart” energy development requires intense “ground-truthing,” Loyka said. That’s why TNC Wyoming is soliciting input from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, county commissioners and several Wyoming conservation groups.

TNC Wyoming also recently sought input from Wyoming lawmakers during a “Camo at The Capitol” event this month.

“Right now, we’re wanting to talk to stakeholders across the state,” said Monika Leininger, TNC’s Wyoming director of energy and climate solutions. “Sportsmen are really important stakeholders because we know that you all are in touch with Wyoming wildlife and lands,” she told a crowd of lawmakers and hunters Feb. 2 at the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. 

Wyo solar

So far, there are two existing utility-scale solar energy farms in Wyoming; Sweetwater Solar located on mostly BLM lands north of Green River, and Sage Solar located on private land in Lincoln County.

South Cheyenne Solar LLC has proposed a 150-megawatt solar farm on private land in Laramie County, and Dinosolar has proposed a 440-megawatt solar facility on private land west of Bar Nunn in Natrona County. One megawatt hour can power the average American home for about 1.2 months.

Developers tend to prefer to build on private land because it’s easier than going through federal permitting, Loyka said. The intent of updating the BLM’s Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement is to help speed up the federal permitting process, in part, by collecting and evaluating local input.

But the prospect of intentionally encouraging renewable energy development on BLM-managed lands raises concerns of industrializing undisturbed areas.

Jay Carey of Denver said his family owns property west of Larmie that’s growing into a small residential community among interspersed BLM tracts where wild horses might struggle to survive if public lands are fenced off for utility-scale solar installations.

“​​It would be very hard on the local wildlife to take another 900 acres off of the grazable land for the large animals, not to mention the access to water and for them to be able to move around,” Carey said.

For more information see the program’s website.