With the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) reaffirmed its commitment to 'fast-track' the nation's first utility-scale solar energy projects on public lands.
The BLM pledged to complete environmental impact studies for 31 of America's "most promising" renewable energy projects by December 2010. Fourteen of these are proposed solar plants — 10 to be built in California and the rest in Nevada and Arizona. The other projects include seven wind farms, three geothermal plants and seven transmission projects.
Together, these fast-track proposals have the potential to power 900,000 homes. The hope is to make them eligible for stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 which expires in less than a year.
BLM Director Bob Abbey said the move will help the nation reach its "green energy future."
For the solar industry, the announcement "is great news," said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a trade group representing 1,100 solar-related firms.
The BLM manages 253 million acres of public land, one-fifth of the country's landmass. Studies show that much of that is rich in sun and wind.
So far, the agency has identified 23 million acres with solar energy potential in six southwestern states, and more than 20 million acres with wind power potential in 11 western states.
While some 20 percent of the nation's installed wind capacity of over 20,000 MW has been built on federal lands — mainly in the Midwest — the BLM has "not approved one acre for solar power development," Resch told SolveClimate.
It is not for lack of trying.
Nearly 160 applications for large-scale solar projects have been stalled at the BLM. Some of these go back five years, when the Bush administration first opened up public lands to renewable energy projects under the Energy Act of 2005.
If all of those projects were built, solar panels and mirrors would carpet 1.8 million acres of federal lands in six western states and generate 97,000 MW of electricity, or enough to power 29 million homes, according to BLM figures. That's almost one-third of the nation's total residential electricity consumption.
The BLM is only promising to complete environmental studies for 14 solar projects, but it has to start somewhere, Resch said.
"Although we want BLM to move forward on all of the applications, dealing with the first group of projects will streamline the process for additional solar projects to be approved in the near future," he said.
Sluggish action has long concerned the solar industry, whose representative say the sector's emerging growth depends on access to remote Western expanses.
The industry also says jobs are at stake. Solar plans in the pipeline would create nearly 40,000 new jobs, according to SEIA figures.
After some fits and starts, the BLM appears to be moving towards some semblance of pro-solar regulatory reform.
We're seeing "a significant shift from the Bush administration," Resch said.
In June 2008, the BLM under President Bush slapped a 22-month moratorium on new solar power plant applications in order to complete an environmental impact study. One month later, after a storm of public and industry protest, the agency dropped the freeze.
In June 2009, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced for the first time a series of 'fast-track' initiatives that would speed the reviews of solar proposals and assess utility-scale development on lands in 24 "Solar Energy Study Areas."
As part of the effort, the Interior called for the BLM to create local renewable energy offices to help process the piles of applications. To date, the BLM has done so in California, Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming.
The progress, said Salazar, is part of "President Obama's comprehensive energy strategy," which calls for "rapid development of renewable energy, especially on America's public lands."
As the nation inches closer to its first-generation of desert solar farms, not everyone is cheering, though.
Land preservationists, concerned with habitat conservation for endangered species, have been fighting solar companies on some plant proposals. The battles are pitting environmentalists against each other in what could be the green-on-green struggle of the next decade.
One of the most high-profile cases involves California-based BrightSource Energy.
In September, the company dumped its plans to build a 500-MW solar facility in the eastern part of California's 25,000-acre Mojave Desert. The reason is that the site was expected to be given a national monument designation under coming legislation from California's Sen. Diane Feinstein.
Sure enough, on Dec. 21, the senator introduced the long-awaited California Desert Protection Act of 2010. The bill would create two national monuments covering roughly 1.1 million acres of land. The act is supported by wilderness protection groups, including the California Wilderness Coalition, The Wilderness Society and The National Parks Conservation Association.
"This bill, if enacted, will have a positive and enduring impact on the landscape of the Southern California desert, and I hope it will stand as a model for how to balance renewable energy development and conservation," Feinstein said.
BrightSource has other plans for Mojave solar, though.
Since 2007, the start-up has been seeking approval to build the 440-MW Ivanpah concentrating solar power facility near the Nevada border.
The facility, made up of three plants, is expected be the first such installation to get built on BLM lands. The project calls for 400,000 sunlight-gathering heliostat mirrors to sprawl across a 4,065-acre desert expanse, providing power to 150,000 homes.
While it appears a done deal, government scientists have revealed that the site is home to the threatened desert tortoise — and now activists are recommending the plants be moved.
But the facility is on the BLM's new fast-track list, and the company said last month it plans to to break ground in 2010, "following final permitting" from the agency.
Further, in mid-December, BrightSource announced an agreement with two labor organizations for the construction of the plants, creating 1,000 jobs. It also has secured contracts to sell the electricity to Southern California Edison and the Pacific Gas and Electric.
Some desert advocates have said they want solar plants only built on land already used for farming or other development. BrightSource claims its Ivanpah site qualifies. According to the company, the area already contains two major power transmission lines and one natural gas line. It also overlooks a big block of Nevada casinos and sits across the highway from a natural gas plant.
"Solar projects will be developed with the utmost regard for the environment," Resch said. "If the U.S. is serious about addressing climate change and reducing our pollution, then developing our solar resources in the desert is critical."
The Oil & Gas Advantage
For the solar industry, one of the defining tests of progress in 2010 will be how many permits solar projects get from the BLM, compared with the number awarded to oil and gas.
The oil and gas industries have been granted access to 45 million acres of public lands in total. In 2007, more than 7,000 such permits were issued for BLM lands, SEIA says.
Since Jan. 21, 2009, the BLM has held 35 oil and gas lease sales offering 2.7 million acres across the West, according to the agency's figures.
The solar industry, still at zero permits, is calling for "equal access to public lands" with the fossil fuel industry.
"America has the best solar resources in the world and we can't harness the full potential of the sun without accessing our sun-baked lands of the West," Resch said.
BLM Director Abbey said:
"Diversifying our energy supply does not mean that we will neglect the responsible development of the oil and gas resources on the public lands."