A New Use for Public Lands?

Public lands, especially our National Forests, are managed for “multiple use.” By statute, they are required to be managed for the often competing values of recreation, grazing, timber, watershed protection, wildlife and fish, and wilderness.

Historically, that management has included energy production and mineral extraction. In the past, that has meant coal, oil, and gas.  Most of this has taken place in the western United States. While most, if not all, of the coal production in the eastern United States is on private land, out west things are different. In places like Wyoming, most of the coal that is mined comes from public lands.  

This is true of natural gas as well. While in the east most of the natural gas production is from private land, much of the production out west comes from public land.

Developments in the last few years, however, have moved energy production on public lands beyond the mining of minerals. According to a report by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment and the Wilderness Society, renewable energy projects are becoming more common on public lands. According to the report:

In 2019 there were 96 utility scale solar, wind, and geothermal projects operating on public lands with a total generation capacity of over 5,000 megawatts (MW), enough energy to power over two million homes. The best available data show that rent and royalty payments from renewable energy development on public lands have contributed over $660 million in 2019 dollars to federal, state, and local governments since 1982. This report concludes that the capital costs for construction of the renewable energy projects operating on public lands have contributed over $13 billion in 2019 dollars to the economy since 1996. Estimates show that these projects have generated over 12,000 construction jobs and over 1,700 operations and maintenance jobs.

All of the projects included in the report are in the western United States.  Most are in either Nevada or California. In terms of production, the largest producer of electricity from public lands is solar power.  

Like renewable energy in all situations, renewable energy on public lands is not something we are accustomed to. It may or may not ever come here. Out west, however, it is increasingly common.