Big Solar MWs in Desert Back

By Published On: July 7, 2008

The Bureau of Land Management reversed its policy that froze numerous solar energy projects slated for federal land. It agreed July 2 to continue processing applications and begin accepting new ones for solar projects proposed on public lands in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and three other western states. The agency halted the renewable projects after launching an umbrella Environmental Impact Statement in late May. BLM received 74 applications for concentrated solar and photovoltaic projects on public land in California alone. That is estimated to represent 50,000 MW of solar generating capacity, according to agency spokesperson John Dearing. That is the equivalent of one hundred, 500 MW power plants, but far fewer will ever see the light of day. The agency is responsible for millions of acres of western public land, with nearly 600,000 acres in California. “By continuing to accept and process new applications for solar energy projects, we will aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources, while ensuring environmental protections,” stated James Caswell, BLM director. “It won’t be a picnic,” said Jan Smutny-Jones, Independent Energy Producers executive director. He noted hurdles remain for the solar projects on public lands. Peter Weiner, an attorney with Paul Hastings, who represents the solar industry in California, said solar developers are happy about the agency’s reversal. He urged the agency to follow the lead of the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative on transmission development. The recommendations from this two-year-old stakeholder/state agency workgroup are critical to bringing renewable energy from its source to customers, according to Weiner. The unprecedented number of applications has flooded in from solar power developers seeking rights of way on federal land. In response, the agency and the Department of Energy announced in late May they were halting the solar power project approval process to focus on setting overall environmental protection parameters. That decision effectively closed the door on solar financing. Solar companies cannot raise development funds from financiers if the application process is shut down. “The capital goes elsewhere,” said Weiner. Initially, the federal land agency said it would not continue to evaluate solar power applications by assessing project specific environmental impacts in accordance with the National Energy Policy Act. Instead, it announced that it planned to undertake a Programmatic Environmental Impact Assessment over the next two to three years aiming to establish federal environmental policies and mitigation strategies. During that period it planned to halt considering solar projects. Now it will continue to accept and process applications while it performs the broader environmental assessment, which will gaze 20 years into the future and outline environmental protections. It also is expected to include evaluating needed transmission projects on federal lands to ensure the solar energy is fed into the grid. That decision likely will impact San Diego Gas & Electric’s controversial Powerlink transmission project, among others. Powerlink is a proposed $1.5 billion, 150-mile high-voltage line to move fossil, wind and solar juice from the Imperial Valley and Mojave Desert to San Diego. Wilderness, land protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and habitat known to protect threatened and endangered species is not included among the land available for solar power, according to the federal agencies’ May 29 announcement filed with the Federal Register notifying its launch of a programmatic environmental assessment. As the agency undertakes the assessment, solar developers are pushing for widened availability of federal land for solar projects. That includes property managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Defense, as well as the BLM. Solar advocates are watching the developments of the umbrella assessment, insisting that it be flexible enough to adapt to new technologies and climate change effects over the 20-year period it is intended to cover. The Bureau agreed to extend its comment period on its programmatic environmental evaluation to July 15.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now