Interior Dept. OKs first solar projects on public lands

Two projects granted permission by the Interior Department to build solar plants on desert land in California could provide enough electricity to support over 500,000 homes.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
4 min read

While news of the White House solar installation captured the world's attention yesterday, another historic change that could have greater impact on solar energy in the U.S. was taking place.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced it had approved the first large-scale solar-energy projects to ever be built on public land.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed final versions of the Records of Decision for two solar installations, both of which happen to be on public lands in California. They will have a large impact on the amount of electricity generated from solar as a result.

"There are 11 million acres of public lands in the California Desert, and a large majority of those lands are managed for conservation purposes. These projects, while a significant commitment of public land, actually represent less than one-hundredth of one percent of that total area. Given the many benefits, the extensive mitigation measures, and the fair market value economic return, approval of these projects is clearly in the public interest," Salazar said in a statement.

One of the alternative-energy projects approved was proposed by a subsidiary of the oil giant Chevron.

The Chevron Lucerne Valley Solar Project, which will be overseen by the Chevron subsidiary Chevron Energy Solutions of California, was granted use of 422 acres of public land in San Bernardino County, Calif., for the purpose of building a 45-megawatt solar plant consisting of 40,500 solar panels. The land is located near California State Route 247 north of San Bernardino National Forest and abuts an existing transmission line. When complete it's expected to generate enough electricity to power between 13,500 and 33,750 homes at any given time. (The range takes into consideration the natural fluctuation in available solar power.)

Another project, the Imperial Valley Solar Project, which will be overseen by Tessera Solar of Texas, was granted use of 6,360 acres of public lands in Imperial County, Calif. It's desert land located along Interstate 8 near Plaster City, Calif., just north of the California-Mexico border. That plant will consist of 28,360 parabolic solar dishes estimated to produce about 709 megawatts worth of energy annually. Once up and running, that plant is expected to provide enough energy to power between 212,700 and 531,750 homes at any given time.

Map of the Imperial Valley Solar Project located on U.S. public lands U.S. Department of the Interior

As part of the program, each of the companies involved will also receive a hefty monetary incentive from the U.S. government if they get the projects done quickly.

"Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, renewable energy developers that have their projects under construction by the end of 2010 or meet one of the program's safe harbor provisions can qualify for significant funding. The Recovery Act's payment for specified energy property in lieu of tax credit program makes Tessera and Chevron eligible for approximately $273 million and $31 million, respectively," the Department of the Interior said in a statement.

Should one worry that these latest changes mean our nation's federal parks will soon be mottled with unsightly solar panels, consider this: the Bureau of Land Management oversees 258 million surface acres of land and the agency has taken over two years to assess impact and develop a planned program for allowing solar installations on public lands.

In May 2008 the Bureau of Land Management, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, initiated a joint Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to assess the impact of using public land in six states for solar-farm development: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. It also placed a moratorium on reviewing any new applications for solar installations, but agreed to review the 125 applications already in process.

In July 2008, the BLM lifted the ban on reviewing new applications for solar projects on public lands.

Then in July 2009, the BLM released a set of maps for the six states that developers and utilities could use as guidelines when applying for solar-installation permission. It launched several more environmental impact studies for specific areas in each state, opened new solar-energy permitting offices, and overhauled the application and review process.

And last month, the California Public Utilities Commission granted permission for power of purchase agreements involving local utilities, Chevron, and Tessera.

"Only lands with excellent solar resources, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands were considered for solar energy study areas. Sensitive lands, wilderness and other high-conservation-value lands as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded," the BLM said in a statement at the time.