Citing Need for Assessments,
U.S. Freezes Solar Energy Projects
DAN FROSCH / New York Times 27jun2008
DENVER — Faced with a surge in the number of proposed solar power plants, the federal government has placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact, which is expected to take about two years.
The Bureau of Land Management says an extensive environmental study is needed to determine how large solar plants might affect millions of acres it oversees in six Western states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
But the decision to freeze new solar proposals temporarily, reached late last month, has caused widespread concern in the alternative-energy industry, as fledgling solar companies must wait to see if they can realize their hopes of harnessing power from swaths of sun-baked public land, just as the demand for viable alternative energy is accelerating.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Holly Gordon, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for Ausra, a solar thermal energy company in Palo Alto, Calif. “The Bureau of Land Management land has some of the best solar resources in the world. This could completely stunt the growth of the industry.”
Much of the 119 million surface acres of federally administered land in the West is ideal for solar energy, particularly in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, where sunlight drenches vast, flat desert tracts.
Galvanized by the national demand for clean energy development, solar companies have filed more than 130 proposals with the Bureau of Land Management since 2005. They center on the companies’ desires to lease public land to build solar plants and then sell the energy to utilities.
According to the bureau, the applications, which cover more than one million acres, are for projects that have the potential to power more than 20 million homes.
All involve two types of solar plants, concentrating and photovoltaic. Concentrating solar plants use mirrors to direct sunlight toward a synthetic fluid, which powers a steam turbine that produces electricity. Photovoltaic plants use solar panels to convert sunlight into electric energy.
Much progress has been made in the development of both types of solar technology in the last few years. Photovoltaic solar projects grew by 48 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. Eleven concentrating solar plants are operational in the United States, and 20 are in various stages of planning or permitting, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The manager of the Bureau of Land Management’s environmental impact study, Linda Resseguie, said that many factors must be considered when deciding whether to allow solar projects on the scale being proposed, among them the impact of construction and transmission lines on native vegetation and wildlife. In California, for example, solar developers often hire environmental experts to assess the effects of construction on the desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrel.
Water use can be a factor as well, especially in the parched areas where virtually all of the proposed plants would be built. Concentrating solar plants may require water to condense the steam used to power the turbine.
“Reclamation is another big issue,” Ms. Resseguie said. “These plants potentially have a 20- to 30-year life span. How to restore that land is a big question for us.”
Another benefit of the study will be a single set of environmental criteria to weigh future solar proposals, which will ultimately speed the application process, said the assistant Interior Department secretary for land and minerals management, C. Stephen Allred. The land agency’s manager of energy policy, Ray Brady, said the moratorium on new applications was necessary to “ensure that we are doing an adequate level of analysis of the impacts.”
In the meantime, bureau officials emphasized, they will continue processing the more than 130 applications received before May 29, measuring each one’s environmental impact.
While proponents of solar energy agree on the need for a sweeping environmental study, many believe that the freeze is unwarranted. Some, like Ms. Gordon, whose company has two pending proposals for solar plants on public land, say small solar energy businesses could suffer if they are forced to turn to more expensive private land for development.
The industry is already concerned over the fate of federal solar investment tax credits, which are set to expire at the end of the year unless Congress renews them. The moratorium, combined with an end to tax credits, would deal a double blow to an industry that, solar advocates say, has experienced significant growth without major environmental problems.
“The problem is that this is a very young industry, and the majority of us that are involved are young, struggling, hungry companies,” said Lee Wallach of Solel, a solar power company based in California that has filed numerous applications to build on public land and was considering filing more in the next two years. “This is a setback.”
At a public hearing in Golden, Colo., on Monday, one of a series by the Bureau of Land Management across the West, reaction to the moratorium was mixed.
Alex Daue, an outreach coordinator for the Wilderness Society, an environmental conservation group, praised the government for assessing the implications of large-scale solar development.
Others warned the bureau against becoming mired in its own bureaucratic processes on solar energy, while parts of the West are already humming with new oil and gas development.
Craig Cox, the executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, a renewable energy trade group, said he worried that the freeze would “throw a monkey wrench” into the solar energy industry at precisely the wrong time.
“I think it’s good to have a plan,” Mr. Cox said, “but I don’t think we need to stop development in its tracks.”
Freezing the Sun
A double blow for solar energy
The Economist (UK) 26jun2008
IT SEEMED so promising—mirrors sprawled across desert land in the scorching south-west delivering clean electricity and helping to wean Americans off imported fossil fuels. Some scientists and industry developers claim that Nevada’s empty and sun-drenched expanses alone could supply enough terawatts to power the entire country.
Now even the optimists fear this wonderful prospect may be a mirage. Congress has been dithering over extending a valuable investment tax credit for solar-energy projects, which solar advocates say is critical to the future of their industry but which is due to expire at the end of the year. The latest attempt failed in the Senate earlier this month: prospects for a deal before November’s presidential and congressional elections now look dim. Uncertainty has led some investors to delay or abandon projects in the past few months. Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said if the tax credits are allowed to expire at the end of the year, “it will result in the loss of billions of dollars in new investments in solar.”
Further dampening hopes for a big solar-energy boom, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has abruptly slapped a moratorium on new applications to put solar collectors on federal land. The agency says it has a backlog of more than 130 applications and needs to conduct a region-wide environmental-impact study on the industry before it will accept any more. The study will take 22 months to complete, however. Few argue against trying to preserve precious water sources and protect desert tortoises and other creatures that might not enjoy cohabiting with sprawling fields of mirrors. But many solar advocates wonder why the government is not acting as cautiously when it comes to drilling for oil and gas.
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, wants a congressional probe into the proposed moratorium. “The fact that the BLM pops this out without people even knowing about it, especially when solar thermal looks extremely promising as a baseload [power source], is not right,” she says. Harry Reid of Nevada, who is the majority leader in the Senate, also condemns the BLM’s freeze, saying that it could “slow new development to a crawl”.
The BLM is not without its supporters, however. At a public meeting on June 23rd in Golden, Colorado, Alex Daue, of the Wilderness Society, said that his organisation supports renewable-energy development as long as it doesn’t damage other important resources. The message is clear: no rubber stamps, even for renewable energy.
US Halts Solar Energy Projects
Over Environment Fears
CATHERINE ELSWORTH / The Telegraph (UK) 27jun2008
Los Angeles — The US government is putting a hold on new solar energy projects on public land for two years so it can study the environmental impact of sun-driven plants.
The Bureau of Land Management says the moratorium on solar proposals is needed to determine how a new generation of large-scale projects could affect plants and wildlife on the land it manages.
The move has angered some solar energy proponents who argue it could hold up the industry at a vital juncture, given the pressing need to secure alternative energy sources at a time of soaring oil prices. "This technology has been around for nearly three decades.
If there is an environmental concern, that can be addressed without putting a halt to this technology and helping to impact our greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental degradation from coal-fired and natural gas plants," said Brad Collins, executive director of the American Solar Energy Society.
He said the review appeared to be an arbitrary "road block" that contradicted "the stated goals of both presidential candidates, the stated goals of Congress and the American public." The Bureau of Land Management, which looks after 258 million acres of federal land, much of it flat, sun-baked terrain in the western US considered ideal for solar energy development, says the study is required by law and backed by environmental groups.
"Obviously the footprint from solar development is significant," said Celia Boddington, a BLM spokeswoman.
"(The solar plants) cover thousands of acres potentially, and we need to determine what the environmental consequences are of that, look at what it means when you spray the land with herbicides or remove vegetation." She said the BLM's solar programme was "completely new" and required a framework to be established.
The environmental assessment was being "fast-tracked". During the study, the BLM will not accept any new applications to lease public land for solar developments. But it insists it is "not holding industry up" and will continue to process 150 existing applications for roughly one million acres of federal land considered to have the best potential for solar development.
Together the proposed projects could produce as much as 70 billion watts of electricity, enough energy to power 20 million homes. Most of the applications were received during the past year and a half, Ms Boddington said.
"So it's still very, very new. The potential is there but we want to make sure we do it properly because the environmental impacts are potentially significant. This is exciting, it's a great opportunity but solar development has not yet been established commercially on a large scale."
Mr Collins argued the analysis could halt recent momentum in the domestic solar industry that has seen "a large number of international, large-scale players move their operations and headquarters" to the US and impact the growing field of "green collar jobs".
"It would be an example of taking a new industry and arbitrarily placing road blocks in the way to a transition to the safe, sustainable energy economy that everybody says they want."