The Bureau of Land Management proposes to designate solar and wind energy zones where it would periodically offer development rights to renewable developers through bids, similar to today’s oil and gas tract lease sales conducted by the agency. Currently, BLM allows specific project developers to build renewable energy projects on federally-managed lands through a right-of-way application process, in which the developer picks the site for the project and seeks BLM approval. Announcing the potential change Jan. 3, BLM director Bob Abbey said the competitive process is aimed at “improving the process by which we provide access for responsible energy development while providing a fair return for the use of the public lands.” The announcement was music to the ears of conservationists because it would eliminate the possibility that projects would be placed where they could have maximal impact on wildlife habitat. “Wind energy development zones, if done right, could be helpful to both birds and wind energy development,” said Kelly Fuller, American Bird Conservancy wind campaign coordinator. The bidding process in designated wind development zones, said Fuller, could ensure that projects are “bird-smart.” Many renewable energy projects have suffered extensive delays--or even been scuttled--because developers have sought to obtain rights-of-way on land where projects would cause inordinate impacts on wildlife habitat. The federal agency outlined the idea in an advance notice of proposed rulemaking. The proposal comes after the bureau in 2005 and 2011, respectively, published environmental studies outlining federally-managed lands that offer the most potential and least environmental impact for producing wind and solar power in the West, including California. Fuller expressed hope that the bureau’s proposal would result in “well-sited” projects. Its announcement followed approval on Dec. 29, 2011, of rights-of-way for transmission lines to tie two renewable energy projects into the grid. One is the 275 MW Centinela Solar Energy Project near El Centro. It is to use 19 acres of federal land for a 230 kV transmission line to San Diego Gas & Electric’s existing Imperial Valley Substation. The solar plant is to be located on 2,067 acres of previously disturbed private land. The other transmission line right of way is to tie the 104 MW Echanis Wind Energy Project in Oregon into the grid.