Biden administration moves to expand solar power on US land

Solar arrays are seen north of Las Vegas in this file photo. U.S. officials announced approval Tuesday of two solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in three other Western states — Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — to potential solar development.

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. officials announced approval Tuesday of two solar energy projects in California and moved to open up public lands in three other Western states to potential solar development, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Arica and Victory Pass solar projects in Riverside County east of Los Angeles, which combined would generate up to 465 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 132,000 homes.

Approval of a third solar farm — planned for 500 megawatts and known as Oberon — is expected in coming days, officials said.

The land agency also on Tuesday issued a call to nominate land for development within “solar energy zones” in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that combined cover about 140 square miles.

The solicitation of interest comes as officials under Democratic President Biden promote renewable wind and solar power on public lands and offshore to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that climate experts say are warming the planet.

That’s a pronounced change from Republican President Donald Trump’s emphasis on coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

Yet the Biden administration was unsuccessful in its attempt to suspend sales of oil and gas leases on public lands and waters, after a judge ordered sales to resume following a lawsuit from Republican-led states. Biden suffered another huge blow to his climate change agenda this week, as opposition from West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centerpiece climate and social services legislation.

During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland did not directly address a question about the faltering bill and instead pointed to clean energy provisions in a bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.

“We fully intend to meet our clean energy goals,” Haaland said, adding that the administration was trying to make up lost ground.

“The Trump administration did more than just stall clean energy development over the last few years. At Interior, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, they shuttered offices and undermined long-term agreements,” Haaland said. “We are rebuilding that capacity.”

The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost 250 million acres of land, primarily in Western states.

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said officials are currently considering 40 large-scale proposals for solar projects in the West. In early December, the agency issued a draft plan to reduce rents and other fees paid by companies authorized to build wind and solar projects on public lands.

In Nevada, where the federal government owns and manages more than 80% of the state’s land, large-scale solar projects have faced opposition from environmentalists concerned about harm to plants and animals in the sun- and windswept deserts.

Developers abandoned plans for what would have been the country’s largest solar panel installation earlier this year north of Las Vegas amid concerns from local residents. Environmentalists are fighting another solar project near the Nevada-California border that they claim could harm birds and desert tortoises.

Stone-Manning said solar projects on public lands are being sited to take environmental concerns into account.

The solar development zones were first proposed under the Obama administration, which in 2012 adopted plans to bring utility-scale solar energy projects to public lands in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Officials to date have identified almost 1,400 square miles of public land for potential leasing for solar power development.

If all that land were developed, the bureau said it could support more than 100 gigawatts of solar power, or enough electricity for 29 million homes. That’s roughly equal to total U.S. solar power capacity already in place, with solar production from federal lands currently just a small fraction of that amount.

In November the land bureau awarded solar leases for about 8 square miles of land in Utah’s Milford Flats solar zone. Solar leases are expected to be finalized by the end of the month for about 13 square miles of land at several sites in Arizona, officials said.

Solar power on public and private lands accounted for about 3% of total U.S. electricity production in 2020.

With solar construction costs having fallen during much of the past decade, that figure is expected to grow sharply, to more than 20% of production by 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected last month.

But solar power developers warn that costs have been rising due to constraints on supplies of steel, copper, semiconductor chips and other construction materials.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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(1) comment

Judd Grossman

Solar seems like an environmental disaster. Gen 4 nuclear has its risks, but seems much more sustainable.

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