Green groups protest BLM solar plan for Southwest
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, Greenwire
Three environmental groups have formally protested an Interior Department plan to accelerate solar energy development on public lands in the Southwest, arguing the agency failed to explore less damaging alternatives such as siting panels on houses, businesses or disturbed lands.
In a letter to the Bureau of Land Management that could portend a future lawsuit, the groups Western Lands Project, Basin and Range Watch and Solar Done Right warn that the impacts of commercial solar facilities are essentially permanent and would intensify under the BLM plan.
"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, founder of Seattle-based WLP, in a statement, noting that new plants also call for extensive new transmission infrastructure. "Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites."
The protest is the first from conservation groups since BLM finalized its solar proposal in late July, a plan that garnered endorsements from several major environmental groups, sportsmen's organizations and utilities (E&ENews PM, July 24).
The plan, which still awaits a record of decision from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, provides incentives for siting solar projects within more than a quarter-million acres of sun-baked "solar energy zones" in six states where environmental impacts are relatively low. The plan also allows development on an additional 19 million acres of "variance zones," though developers there would need to conduct their own environmental reviews.
Interior declined to address the groups' specific complaints but said it would review each protest carefully.
Blake Androff, an agency spokesman, called the BLM solar plan a "key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades."
"Conservation wins because the blueprint guides development away from important cultural and biological resources and establishes best practices to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of solar energy," he said.
But the environmental groups said BLM should have explored two additional alternatives in its programmatic environmental impact statement, including siting panels on previously degraded lands or using distributed generation, which places panels directly on homes, on businesses or at other localized sites.
The United States should follow the example of Germany, which has rapidly deployed distributed solar photovoltaics by making the technology a policy priority, the groups note.
"Many experts agree that decentralized generation and distribution is the wave of the future," the groups' protest notes. "If we are to realize our full renewable energy potential, we must make a major departure from the old energy business model dependent on a constantly expanding, centralized utility system."
The groups also argue there is no scientific evidence to suggest commercial-scale projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pointing to research suggesting soil disturbance could release more carbon.
Ecological recovery after the solar plants are decommissioned could take thousands of years, the groups added.
Solar plants need room
As of this summer, 11 solar projects covering more than 36,000 acres were approved for public lands, each ranging from 618 to 7,025 acres, the groups said. BLM is processing nearly 80 applications for projects that would carve up about 685,000 acres of desert habitats.
Commercial-scale photovoltaic plants, the prevailing technology on public lands, use roughly 20 times as much space as a fossil fuel plant on a per-megawatt basis, according to federal scientists.
But while BLM manages about 250 million acres of mostly Western lands, it does not have jurisdiction over private lands where distributed generation takes place. On its website, the agency said distributed generation provides less power than commercial facilities, is more difficult to integrate into the grid or store and is generally more costly, among others limiting factors.
In addition, solar experts including Robert Glennon, a law professor at the University of Arizona, have noted that it is difficult to find large enough blocks of agricultural or other degraded lands for commercial solar plants, which require up to several thousand acres.
Environmental groups have generally rallied around BLM's solar plan, lauding the agency for intensifying its push toward renewable generation while taking an earnest look at impacts to wildlife.
Groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership all issued statements of support after the plan's release in July.
"We need energy efficiency and conservation, and renewable energy at all scales from rooftop PV to utility scale wind and solar projects to move us off of fossil fuels," Helen O'Shea, director of the Western Renewable Energy Program at NRDC, said in a statement.
She called the BLM plan critical for allowing responsible projects on public lands. "NRDC, and I am sure many other stakeholders, will continue to engage in the implementation of the program to secure the best possible environmental safeguards and practices so we protect our lands and wildlife," she added.
Still, the protest has fueled criticism that environmentalists oppose all forms of development, even carbon-free renewable energy.
A Wall Street Journal editorial today, for example, called the protest "similar to the exaggerated complaints that greens have used for decades to kill or delay natural gas drilling, coal mining, road building, and the construction of dams for hydropower."
"But it's certainly news that some greens are even turning against green energy," the editorial states. "Welcome to the club, Big Solar."