Improving the second round of big solar projects

Interior department needs a more careful site selection process

We’re headed into what promises to be another busy year for solar development in the desert Southwest. Ramping up the nation’s supply of clean energy and cutting carbon pollution are profoundly important goals. But the Obama administration should not repeat the same mistakes made by its predecessor during its headlong and heedless rush to develop oil and gas resources on public lands. To do so would erode public support for the critically needed transformation of our energy generation and transmission systems. The administration needs to guide these projects to appropriate areas where their environmental disruption is minimized.

CAP’s Tom Kenworthy explains the way forward in this cross-post.

Federal and California agencies approved more than a dozen large solar energy projects in the desert Southwest in the second half of 2010. These projects will provide nearly 5,000 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power about 1.5 million homes. The rush to sign off on these projects, many of which required both state and federal approvals, was driven in large part by an end-of-year deadline for clean energy project developers to receive federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That time constraint and problems with the project application system dating to the Bush administration””which basically took every application that came through the door including those from rank speculators””have raised concerns about these projects and their environmental impacts. A spate of recent lawsuits were filed against several of the approved projects by Native American tribes, the Sierra Club, and organized labor.

The way to deal with this issue is for the Interior Department to conduct a rigorous analysis informed by the views of the renewable energy industry, conservationists, tribes, and other stakeholders. This should lead to new guidance to the field from the top levels of Interior that achieves the goals of expediting solar energy development while protecting key natural resources on federal lands.

At bottom this requires the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to be more strategic and proactive in assessing which areas are suitable for development with the least potential for conflict. BLM also needs to direct project developers to those low-conflict areas, make earlier and better assessments of which proposed projects are likely to succeed, and encourage more thorough public engagement.

An essential element of getting this process right is recognizing that there are some places in the desert Southwest where industrial-scale solar development is inappropriate. And authorities need to ensure that development occurs in those areas where it is most suitable and least likely to cause conflicts with wildlife and other resources. Allowing developers to apply willy-nilly for sites across the landscape is a recipe for prolonged conflict and unnecessary delays in building a clean energy future. A programmatic environmental impact statement now being developed by the Departments of the Interior and Energy to guide solar development in six western states should require projects be located only in zones identified as appropriate.

Fortunately a coalition of conservation groups, solar industry firms, and utilities known as the California Desert & Renewable Energy Working Group has already drawn up a list of recommendations for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. These would strengthen the planning and permitting processes for the next big round of solar projects on federal lands.

Among the group’s recommendations sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar:

  • Deeper reforms of BLM’s application process to weed out purely speculative plays and to ensure that applicants are both viable and that their proposals are sized appropriately and not just locking up large blocks of land that are inconsistent with proposed project size
  • Ensuring that proposed projects are actually meeting milestones such as achieving financial and technical viability, making progress toward actual development rather than just holding on to federal land rights of way for speculation, and getting needed permits and grid connection approvals
  • Adopting criteria to ensure that projects that can be built expeditiously and with a minimum of controversy receive priority
  • Making sure the recommended priority system favors siting on lands that are already disturbed, close to urban areas, and near infrastructure including roads and transmission connections

Four leading conservation groups also have offered helpful suggestions in response to a best practices manual prepared by two California and two federal agencies to guide renewable energy projects in the California desert. Those agencies include the federal Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Energy Commission, and the California Department of Fish and Game. Together they make up a Renewable Energy Action Team that grew out of state and federal commitments to accelerate renewable energy development and a cooperative agreement between Sacramento and Washington.

The four agencies state that the goal of the best practices manual is to help project developers understand government environmental requirements, minimize environmental conflicts, guide development to the right areas, and expedite environmental reviews of proposed projects. As the manual states, the California desert region includes “exceptional and rare plants, wildlife and habitat” as well as “culturally significant resources” including Native American sites.

But the four conservation groups””Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity””say the best practices and guidance manual needs to be less voluntary and more prescriptive. The groups said in their comments that without changes in the way agencies handle project applications:

The continued practice of BLM accepting right of way applications throughout the California Desert that involve relatively undisturbed public lands having significant biological resources and values will likely result in continued loss of these resources. … the ‘lessons learned’ from the initial round of ‘fast track’ projects appear to be few, if any, and there is no indication that the agencies are placing meaningful requirements on the location of ‘next-generation’ solar and wind energy projects as a means of avoiding or substantially minimizing impacts. Indeed the whole focus of this manual is on avoiding extended reviews of projects without acknowledging that the agencies actually possess the authority to deny poorly sited projects.

Many conservation groups gave the Department of the Interior a fair amount of leeway during the 2010 rush to approve solar projects. Criticisms were muted in deference to the broad goals of kick-starting renewable energy development on public lands and combating global warming””and in recognition of the constraints the Obama administration inherited.

But the Department of the Interior will likely face a higher standard in 2011. It would do well to give serious consideration to the recommendations it recently received from industry and conservation groups for improving how it assesses and approves renewable energy projects on federal property.

— Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. This is reposted from the CAP website.

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15 Responses to Improving the second round of big solar projects

  1. MiMo says:

    If we want to build all the solar and other renewables energy infrastructure in the time-scales required to stabilize at 450ppm I think all these projects (including the required power grids) should be exempt by all zoning and enviromental regulations and restrictions. No amount of better guidelines and extended consultation will produce results in the required short times.

    Speculators should be encouraged, not discouraged – it is from speculation that the huge capital required will come (or not come)

  2. dhogaza says:

    FInally, a rational post regarding siting issues, rather than the “sierra club is evil for filing suit!” stuff heard ’round the web recently.


    There is no need to destroy the planet’s ecosystems in order to save them.

  3. David44 says:

    I was forced to violate my rule never to visit CP, but to my surprise I found much to agree with, especially:

    “Making sure the recommended priority system favors siting on lands that are already disturbed, close to urban areas, and near infrastructure including roads and transmission connections.”

    Can some someone knowledgeable explain why these solar power units can’t be placed on the rooftops of large commercial and industrial buildings in urban or suburban locations instead of fragile, remote deserts? I understand that the solar intensity there is attractive, but there would seem to be tremendous efficiencies in placing them where they are needed and where the power might even be used directly in new or existing buildings with high power demands. Not necessarily quick and cheap, but ultimately more sustainable (just put sustainable behind your idea and it’s bound to sell, right?) Destroying large blocks of wild areas to save the environment sounds a lot like the Viet Nam era military wierdness of destroying villages in order to save the peasants.

  4. Jon Gelbard says:

    There are more than enough highly disturbed, overgrazed, mined, roaded, ORV-trashed habitats already out there in the desert that would make for perfect sites for renewable energy development.

    How hard can it be to use a simple GIS analysis to identify such sites and avoid sensitive sites?

    There really is no good reason solar companies can’t be hiring the right people, and engaging in the right partnerships, to complete these types of ecologically intelligent siting analyses. My guess is that their teams simply lacked the ecological expertise, initially, to realize the importance of doing so.

    We need the clean energy, and there’s no doubt plenty of already-impacted land to site it on. Now let’s get these solar projects sited in an ecologically informed manner and get to work driving our clean energy revolution!

  5. xccccur says:

    It is about time that balance has entered the discussion relative to siting these facilities. Degradation and elimination of habitats is as significant a problem as the use of carbon based fuels. And while we’ll eventually eliminate dependence on fossil fuels, we’re not likely to reverse or seriously reduce habitat loss. Having worked so hard and so long to preserve as much open space in California as possible given the exploding population, it is disheartening to see the large areas of our last pristine environments sacrificed for a piteously small reduction in fossil fuel use.

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    David44, only PV can go on rooftops while most of these large projects aren’t PV (and shouldn’t be given the current state of solar technologies). My understanding is that distributed (rooftop) PV is still pretty expensive, although I haven’t been following the details beyond the articles I’ve read here.

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    IMHO the Bushies created this (partial) train wreck entirely on purpose.

    MiMo, allowing people without a serious proposal to lock up land rights solely for the speculative purpose of selling them later to sopmeone with a serious proposal gums up the works and benefits no one but the speculators.

  8. dhogaza says:

    IMHO the Bushies created this (partial) train wreck entirely on purpose.

    A couple of things – the W administration was out to minimize regulatory barriers to development on BLM lands as much as the law allows (and the law allows much more leeway in the administration of BLM land than it does on USFS land, the latter being subject to the National Forest Management Act, etc).

    This was partially philosophical, and partially a practical way to help their fossil fuel energy buddies to explore and exploit new sources on BLM lands. A lot of trashing of land around Arches NP went on, for instance, with seismic teams dragging heavy equipment over lands that previously had been off-limits. That’s just a single example.

    The fast-tracking of siting solar projects was more an unintended consequence IMO, but certainly fit the philosophical “let natural resources companies do what they want to public lands” mindset of the administration.

  9. David44 says:

    Steve Bloom: “only PV can go on rooftops” Why?

  10. Leif says:

    David44, @9: Probably has to do with “point load” and other wind load requirements.

  11. adelady says:

    David, PV is ideal for rooftops. No need to worry about other solar arrays there.

    It’s a rare city that doesn’t have a former industrial park or similar large tract of land rusting and rotting and cluttering up the landscape. When we run out of already degraded locations to instal large solar arrays, we’ll have a look at how economical PV has become and instal more of that. And we’ll have a look at other options.

    Pick the low-hanging fruit first.

  12. It’s already not looking good as far as learning from past mistakes or improving the process. The BLM has issued its Programmatic EIS for Solar Study Areas, which in all its PR has referred to the 676,000 acres of study areas as the focus of future solar development on public land. But the BLM’s Preferred Alternative in the PEIS is to keep open 22 MILLION acres of public land,of which the SSAs comprise about 3 percent. BLM simply refuses to start ruling out large areas that are unsuitable for this kind of development. As usual, public lands are being used as a dumping ground.

    Rooftop PV costs are going down steadily, from what I’ve heard. If you factor in the costs of transmission with these remote utility-scale solar developments, point-of-use solar looks much, much better. And no ecosystem destruction.

  13. johnny says:

    “The way to deal with this issue is for the Interior Department to conduct a rigorous analysis informed by the views of the renewable energy industry, conservationists, tribes, and other stakeholders. This should lead to new guidance to the field from the top levels of Interior that achieves the goals of expediting solar energy development while protecting key natural resources on federal lands.”Virility ex scam
    Excellent point. The time has come to protect these natural resources, and why not when the renewable sources of energy are all around us. Wind energy is completely accessible to use through turbines, and their are large areas of land that can harvest wind energy, just like the panels harvest solar power.

  14. MiMo says:

    Steve Bloom #7: let me rephrase my ‘we need the speculators’. We need to develop a lot of solar power; to do this what do you think would be more effective:

    a) A very thorough licensing processing, with extended consultation and detailed vetting of every and each project.

    b) Opening a lot of public land to solar development with minimal or no licensing processes and other red tape.

    If you are still tempted to answer (a), which one do you think the executive of a solar power company, or a solar energy investor would prefer?

    (b) of course would mean that bad things would happen – but do you think we can deploy the necessary amounts of clean energy without any side-effects? Here we are not trying to ‘save the environment’ – we are trying to avert catastrophe. If the cost is just some lizards in the desert we are lucky indeed.

    I saw also in other posts a familiar pattern: ‘let’s build A’ (solar farm in the desert in this case) – ‘no, A is bad for reason X – we should build B instead’ (solar on rooftoops, wind) – and then (of course) ‘B is bad for reason Y – we should build C’, and so on in circles. This is nothing more than a delaying tactic to get NOTHING build.

    The reality is that we have to build solar in the desert AND solar on rooftops AND wind – all at the same time and all on a massive scale.

  15. Will G. says:

    Couldn’t disagree more. Put them out there, let’s do it now, let’s do it big. The lizard will adapt.