Feds Block Solar Power Plants for Impact Review

The United States Bureau of Land Management has been inundated with requests to build solar power plants on federally managed public lands. These applications have been focused specifically on the Southwest region of the U.S. in states with large deserts and open spaces, such as; Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The Bureau is responsible for millions of acres in this region and has reacted to the mountain of solar power plant requests by placing a moratorium on any future plant construction until an extensive environmental impact study can be conducted to see how solar power plants might negatively affect the natural environment.

The environmental impact study is expected to take up to 2 years to complete, which is worrying solar power companies who see potential in the national trend toward alternative energy sources. The solar industry complains that the 119 million surface acres of federally managed land in the West is perfect for creating solar energy. The applications currently submitted to the Bureau could power 20 million homes alone. Solar power technology has improved greatly in recent years. New solar projects grew 48% in 2007 compared to 2006. Eleven plants are operational in the U.S. and 20 more are in the process of being built. That progress may be severely hampered by the impact study.

Several concerns led to the initiation of the environmental impact study. Solar power plants obviously require extensive construction as well as transmission lines, which may have an impact on native vegetation and wildlife. Solar power plants often require water that condenses the steam used to power their turbine and there are already severe water shortages in the West. The Bureau is also hoping that a comprehensive impact analysis will provide a single set of environmental criteria that can be used to assess future plant proposals and speed up the approval process.

Applications submitted to the Bureau prior to May 29th will continue to be processed; however, for those who submitted applications in June, this is a frustrating waiting period. Adding to that frustration is the fact that Congress has failed to renew the renewable energy tax credit that expires this summer.

It should be pointed out that the federal government owns a great deal of land in the west. Over 75% of the total land area in Nevada is federally managed along with 70% of Utah, 60.5% of Idaho and 46.2% of Oregon. Building solar power plants on private lands is prohibitively expensive, so it is important that this review be completed quickly and the application process be allowed to continue.

To hear a full NPR story on the environmental impact study, go HERE

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