Wind Projects on Public Lands

Wind projects can be developed on public lands or in public waters, but the siting and permitting processes for these locations are typically more involved than processes for siting projects on private lands. Benefits of wind projects on public lands include lease payments to the state, federal, or other relevant jurisdictions. The lease terms are often fixed and made public so lease negotiations are simpler than on private land.

Federal agencies must adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for all significant actions they take that may have an effect on the environment. This means that all wind plants proposed for public lands (or otherwise having a federal “nexus” such as federal permitting or federal grant or loan funding) must go through the NEPA process. NEPA requires thorough analysis of the impacts of the proposed federal action related to the wind plant, as well as potential alternatives. This analysis includes extensive public consultation requirements and, if the action is not categorically excluded, typically results in a published Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement. The time it takes to navigate this process varies significantly depending on the level of potential environmental impacts, between a few weeks to months for a small action that can be categorically excluded, several months for an Environmental Assessment, and more than a year for projects requiring an Environmental Impact Statement. If not considered appropriately in project planning, NEPA can delay development steps such as obtaining project financing, interconnection permitting, and power purchase agreements. The expanded development timeline, additional costs, and permitting uncertainty can make it difficult for wind developers to consider projects on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more than 20 million acres of public lands with wind potential in 11 Western states and continues to authorize studies and process applications for rights-of-way for siting wind energy projects and transmission lines. As of March 2020, the BLM has approved 40 wind energy projects on public lands with 5,600 megawatts of total installed capacity, enough to power 1 million homes. Public lands, which may be owned by the state or county, operate under their own jurisdictional review and approval processes.

The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is responsible for overseeing offshore renewable energy development in federal waters, including offshore wind energy development. There is strong interest in offshore renewable energy projects on the Outer Continental Shelf, and BOEM is working closely with several states regarding offshore energy development and coordinating federal-state task forces. A state activities map is available.

More Information about Wind on Public Lands and in Federal Waters

BLM Solar and Wind Energy Rule. The BLM Solar and Wind Energy Rule facilitates responsible solar and wind energy development on public lands.

U.S. Forest Service and BLM Energy Documents. This website includes wind energy documents addressing agency protocol for planning, permitting, right of way, and wildlife monitoring.

West-Wide Wind Mapping Project. The West-Wide Wind Mapping Project maps wind energy resources on public lands and identifies existing land use exclusions and other potential resource sensitivities that may affect wind energy development opportunities.

BOEM Renewable Energy Programs. The Department of Interior’s BOEM oversees offshore wind energy development in federal waters.

Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan identifies Development Focus Areas with high renewable energy potential and transmission access where sensitive ecological and cultural resources impacts can be avoided, minimized, or mitigated.