Renewable sources of energy can and should become a major contributor to the U.S. electricity supply within the foreseeable future. Renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, and hydro currently generate more than 10 percent of the country's electricity, with non-hydro renewables responsible for 4 percent. Even with no changes to current policy, the Energy Information Administration projects renewable generation to account for 45 percent of the increase in total generation from through 2035. Reaching 20 percent of total generation by 2020 is an ambitious, but achievable target for renewables based on the current state of the technologies and the available renewable resources.
A key driver of renewable energy growth in the United States has been state-level Renewable Electricity Standards (RESs), which require utilities to supply increasing amounts of electricity from renewable sources. Thirty States and the District of Columbia now have enforceable RESs or similar laws. These states are responsible for nearly 80 percent of total U.S. renewable energy. Tax incentives-including the existing Production Tax Credit (PTC) and the Investment Tax Credit (ITC)-also play a key role in deploying renewable electricity generation, providing a policy "bridge" that is helping the renewable energy industry survive in an environment where the benefits of low- and zero-carbon emissions are not properly valued by the market. These two policies have been a major driver of renewable energy development over the past several years by giving individuals, businesses, and utilities incentives to invest in renewable energy generation.
In response to a collapsed tax equity market in late 2008 that made it difficult for renewable energy developers to use these tax credits, the 1603 Treasury Grant Program was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to temporarily allow renewable energy developers to convert tax credits into cash grants of equal value. The highly successful program allowed the renewable energy industry to continue to grow during the recession, creating 55,000 jobs and directly leading to the deployment of 4,250 megawatts of renewable energy in 2009.
The federal government has an important role to play in eliminating regulatory barriers to the expansion of renewable electricity generation. Despite the success of state-level initiatives to promote renewables, the balkanized structure for electricity regulation and the inconsistency of federal and state incentive programs have created a relatively unstable investment climate for the domestic renewable electricity market, limiting financing opportunities for individual projects and domestic manufacturing capacity. The federal government has a key role to play in helping to rationalize these programs and regulatory regimes to encourage expanded renewable electricity generation.
Some of the nation's best solar and wind resources exist on public lands, especially in the western United States. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) estimates that more than 20 million acres of BLM-managed lands have wind energy development potential. In its "reasonably foreseeable development" scenario, BLM estimates that more than 23,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar could be developed on public lands in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico alone by 2030. Offshore, the Department of Interior (DOI) estimates more than 1 million megawatts of wind energy potential exists off the Atlantic coast alone. Declining renewable energy technology costs combined with state Renewable Electricity Standards (RESs) and federal tax credits has driven increased demand to develop this vast potential for renewable energy production on public lands.
Of the more than 40,000 megawatts of wind capacity in the United States, there are only 437 megawatts located on public lands. Similarly, none of the more than 2,600 megawatts of solar capacity in the United States are located on public lands. Under the Bush Administration, BLM issued a total of 5 permits for new wind facilities on public lands totaling 288 megawatts; and none were issued for solar. The permitting process has accelerated markedly under the Obama administration. In December 2010, BLM announced 31 renewable energy and transmission "fast-track" projects that the agency would prioritize in order to help accelerate renewable energy development on public lands and allow the projects to be eligible for incentives available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This led to nine solar projects totaling 3,682 megawatts receiving approval in 2010, along with one 150 megawatt wind project. These "fast-track" projects that initiated the permitting process under the Obama administration received their permits an average of 219 days faster than projects that began permitting under the Bush administration. In 2011, the BLM expects to permit 9-10 solar projects totaling 2,300 megawatts and 5-7 wind projects totaling 1,000 megawatts.
In order to accelerate project development and permitting and best match good solar projects with appropriate sites, BLM is currently working on a solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This process has successfully identified 24 solar energy study areas in six western states, comprising more than 1,000 square miles, which are being analyzed to determine if they are appropriate for hosting large-scale solar energy production. After completion of the Programmatic EIS, additional environmental analysis required for site-specific solar energy projects will be able to build off of the larger PEIS, and more quickly complete remaining requirements under NEPA. The Department of Interior (DOI) is also pursuing a tiered NEPA strategy on the outer continental shelf with its "Smart from the Start" initiative, which will facilitate siting, leasing and construction of new offshore wind energy projects.