Feds Take Another Crack at Big Solar Projects

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hoping to fare better at nurturing the development of solar energy without enraging environmentalists, antagonizing financial interests and otherwise giving solar a bad name, the Obama Administration announced a change in strategy this week.

Instead of encouraging that projects be built in locations scattered around six Western states, including California, the government will offer incentives for developers to cluster their projects in large, designated areas. One of their hopes is less tromping through environmentally sensitive areas and the attendant steamrolling of concerned citizens. Another is fewer lawsuits,

The plan drew the support of the solar industry and several national environmental groups—Sierra Club, NRDC, the Wilderness Society and the national Audubon Society.

But not all environmentalists applauded.

The Mojave Desert Blog, which is generally skeptical of industrial-scale solar energy development on public desert lands, said the new policy “weakened environmental protections seen in earlier drafts, and crafted the policy to meet industry demands—essentially putting on paper what is already Interior's de facto policy of allowing solar companies to bulldoze wherever they please.”

The federal plan, which includes 17 solar zones, was developed over a two-year period with input from state and local levels. It specifically rules out certain areas for development based on cultural or environmental concerns. Among those on the exclusion list is the Ivanpah Valley in California, home to two large solar projects currently under development. One of them is BrightSource.

BrightSource Energy Inc., the recipient of $1.6 billion in taxpayer-funded loans, is currently building the world’s largest solar power facility in the Mojave Desert. It has not gone smoothly. The company has fought with environmentalists—over habitat issues and endangered species, including the desert tortoise pictured on its website—while dealing with entrenched political interests. It has also been whipsawed by a solar market that mostly veers between bad and worse.

BrightSource has also been politically embroiled. Its chairman of the board, John Bryson, left the company in 2010 to become President Obama’s Commerce Department secretary. He resigned last month after suffering a “partial seizure” while driving. Before his accident, Bryson was accused by political conservatives of using “crony capitalism” to  advance the interests of the nascent renewable energy industry.

BrightSource, one of the survivors from the solar industry’s turbulent birth, cancelled an eagerly-anticipated IPO at the last minute in April. There haven’t been very many initial public offerings by a green company.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

U.S. Solar Plan Creates Energy Zones, Excludes Sensitive Lands (by Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times)

Unions Fight Against Solar Energy Project in California Desert (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)

The Story Behind BrightSource’s Ditched IPO (by Katie Fehrenbacher, GigaOM)

Desert Solar Policy Codifies Status Quo (by Shawn G., Mojave Desert Blog)

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