Feds Relent on Moratorium
for Solar on Public Lands
By Allen Best
The federal government’s Bureau of Land
Management had an Emily Litella
moment in early July. Like Gilda Radner’s
Saturday Night Live character, the agency
abruptly said “Never mind,” ending its
month-old moratorium on new applications
for solar projects on public lands in the sun-drenched Southwest.
The agency left in place a new programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS).
The goal of the PEIS is to provide a broad, consistent policy governing installation of solar
collectors on the 119 million acres the agency
administers in the six Southwestern states.
The review is expected to be complete in 2010.
The swift moratorium about-face came as
state and then federal officials began echoing
loud grousing from solar companies. “Time is
not on our side,” said Morey Wolfson, of the
Governor’s Energy Office in Colorado, at a
late-June hearing held in Golden, Colo. Noting that the impacts of climate change are sufficiently dangerous to justify ramped-up
development of renewables, he said, “We
can’t push this off for 10, 20 or 30 years.”
Solar and utility industry representatives
said they feared the 18-month moratorium
would stall businesses just now ramping up
production. “That’s a big chunk of time
when companies are just getting going and
building their portfolio projects,” said Harriet Moyer Aptekar, development manager
for Ausra, in Palo Alto, Calif.
Congress then got involved. The moratorium, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid
of Nevada, “is the wrong signal to send to
solar power developers, and to Nevadans and
Westerners who need and want clean, affordable sun-powered electricity soon.”
Officials from California’s San Bernardino
County, the epicenter for this new golden
rush, described the issue differently. Brad
Mitzelfelt, a county supervisor, said he was
disappointed the moratorium was lifted. “All
we are asking is that we slow down to make
sure these projects don’t do irreparable harm
to our shrinking desert,” he said.
Andrew Silva, an aide to Mitzelfelt, further
explained that San Bernardino County
already has the Mojave National Preserve
and parts of Joshua Tree and Death Valley
National Parks, plus two military bases that
hope to expand. Wind farms are also proposed. Silva lamented that compared to natural gas wells, solar projects take large
amounts of space to produce the same
amount of electricity.
“The Southwest is not a big flat empty
parking lot,” he added. “It is a thriving, sensitive, fragile ecosystem.”
Some 130 applications have been filed for
use of BLM lands in the Southwest states since
2006. Half have been in San Bernardino County, with most of the rest in southern Nevada.
The Mojave Desert, stretching roughly from
Barstow, Calif., to St. George, Utah, has some
of the best solar potential in the Southwest.
California’s mandate for renewable energy
fuels the solar rush in the Southwest. The
state requires investor-owned utilities to get 20
percent of electricity from renewable sources
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