Solar panel on a red roof

WASHINGTON — Strong bipartisan support on a key congressional panel Thursday in favor of expanding renewable energy on federal lands hinted that more solar and wind energy plants will soon be coming to Colorado.

A House Natural Resources subcommittee held a hearing on a bill that would give utilities greater access to public lands to develop renewable energy. Typically the facilities consist of solar panel arrays, wind generators, hydroelectric dams and geothermal plants. 

Both Colorado’s Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton and Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette are co-sponsors.

“We have millions of acres of [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] land,” DeGette said during the subcommittee on energy and mineral resources hearing.

The bill would direct the U.S. Interior Department to identify the best sites for renewable energy plants, which also would speed up the permitting process. It creates incentives for state and local governments to participate by paying them royalties from revenue produced by the renewable energy facilities.

So far, state governments receive royalties only from oil, gas and coal companies that operate on federal lands. Local governments receive nothing.

“It sort of pulls everything together,” DeGette, a Denver Democrat, said. “I think that’s really important.”

She said that when she arrived in Congress 23 years ago, solar energy was a small industry. Its high costs made it uncompetitive with other kinds of electrical generation, such as coal-fired plants.

Since then, costs of solar energy have dropped with improvements in technology and its efficiency for generating electricity has risen.

“All forms of renewable energy are going to become more competitive,” DeGette said.

She also said the bill would create jobs to serve the industry.

The bill, H.R. 3794, is called the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act.

When it was introduced last week, Tipton, a Cortez Republican, said in a statement, "Rural communities that have large swaths of public lands rely on royalties from traditional energy resource production to fund schools, roads and other vital projects. This legislation will help spur additional funding for our communities by allowing the rapidly expanding renewable energy market to utilize public lands for production, all while preserving cherished recreation activities, such as hunting, fishing, hiking and biking.”

Colorado’s electrical generating facilities are an example of what some members of Congress call an “all of the above” energy strategy. They include the Vestas windmill plant in Pueblo, the solar farms in the San Luis Valley, the Western Slope’s oil and gas deposits, and dozens of hydro-power dams.

The royalties recommended under the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act means “this bill gives renewables a share of the pie currently enjoyed by traditional energy sources,” Matt Atwood, a spokesman for Tipton, told Colorado Politics.

“Further advances in technology have allowed the state to lead in the renewable energy sector, but many local communities do not have the ability to front the cost of developing these projects, especially when there is an unknown or non-existent rate of return,” Atwood said.

During the congressional hearing, Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, predicted solar power would increase from producing the current 2.3% of U.S. electricity to 20 percent by 2030.

“However, working through the approval process for projects on federal land can be challenging for developers,” she said in her testimony.

She liked a provision in the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act that requires the Interior Department to establish a single office to coordinate federal permitting for solar energy projects.

A coordinated permitting process could “be successful in helping solar projects come to fruition much faster and provide cost-competitive clean energy to American consumers that much faster,” Hopper said.

David Bobzien, director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Energy, said he liked parts of the bill that would use royalty revenue to protect wildlife and their habitats from harmful impacts of commercial development.

“It is important that tools needed by land managers to address and mitigate these impacts are maintained in order to achieve balance in the development of renewable energy,” Bobzien said. “Elements of the Public Land Renewable Energy Development Act do just that.”

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