Conservation advocates ask BLM to consider distributed generation and brownfields alternatives before finalizing solar energy zones
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — As the Bureau of Land Management enters the final stages of adjusting several land-use plans to integrate renewable energy planning, a coalition of public interest groups is formally protesting those plans.
The Administration’s plan is detailed in a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development that establishes solar energy zones in six southwestern states on about 300,000 acres: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
The plan also leaves an additional 19 million acres of public land open to applications for utility scale solar energy developments, but those proposals would require more in-depth environmental studies in response to proposals.
The groups protesting the plans — The Western Lands Project, the Basin and Range Watch, and Solar Done Right — want more focus on developing solar resources on lands that have already been disturbed and in already built environments, advocating for what they call distributed solar energy production.
The protest is part of the BLM’s formal planning and decision-making process.
“The government is converting environmentally sensitive public lands into massive solar energy factories and turning multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones.” said Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project.
“The remote plants will require massive transmission infrastructure. To put salt in the wound, taxpayers are being forced to fund the destruction of their own public lands through multi-billion dollar loan guarantees and grants. Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites. “
The groups say the success of distributed solar power generation in Germany shows it’s a viable alternative — if there’s political will to make it a policy priority. They also advocate for more efficient use of existing energy sources, saying the need for large new facilities could be reduced through widespread adoption of conservation measures.
Distributed solar generates electricity directly from photovoltaic panels. The utility scale solar energy facilities envisioned for the Southwest use fields of solar collectors to concentrate the sun’s energy and drive turbines to produce power.
“We do feel very strongly that there’s a need for a mix of energy generation,” said Ray Brady, manager of the BLM’s national renewable energy office. He emphasized that, along with the planning for large facilities on public lands, the agency is also working with energy companies to facilitate renewable energy development on private lands.
Brady said that, of nine recently approved projects the agency was involved with, five were on private lands, with the BLM providing permits for rights-of-way for energy transmission.
Building larger concentrated solar energy plants enables the country as a whole to take larger steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on imported oil.
“There are clearly some economies of scale … for a lot of the solar technologies, the cost for generation is above the purchase price for the cost of energy from coal, gas or nuclear,” Brady said, adding that the efficiencies of scale help make the cost of solar energy more competitive.
Brady said the success of distributed solar power in Germany and other countries is at least partly due to plentiful incentives and even direct subsidies established as a matter of national policy.
Producing energy in large-scale facilities is also more efficient than photovoltaic generation, according to Brady. Photovolatic efficiency is less than 20 percent, while concentrated solar energy production ranges efficiency can range up to 30 percent.
Some of efficiency is lost when the energy is transmitted, but on the whole, it’s still a net gain, he said.
In their formal protest, the groups assert that the BLM should formally evaluate those comparisons with the best available information by studying a distributed generation alternative, and an alternative in which solar energy facilities would be sited on previously degraded or damaged lands.
The groups, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, called for analysis of these alternatives in previous comment letters.
According to the protest, the pace of solar development is putting unprecedented pressure on public lands in the region, with eleven solar projects on over 36,000 acres already approved and another 76 pending proposals.
Specific concerns relate to impacts to natural and cultural resources, as well as the long-term reclamation of the land impacted by construction of concentrated solar facilities.