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Getting It Right in the Second Round of Big Solar Projects

Interior Department Needs a More Careful Site Selection Process

SOURCE: AP/Laura Rauch

Electric towers and power lines cross the proposed site of a BrightSource Energy solar plant near Primm, NV, on July 14, 2010.  Federal and California agencies approved more than a dozen large solar energy projects in the desert Southwest in the second half of 2010.

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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.

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.

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