Can large solar farms and the California desert co-exist? Yes, says this expert panel, which includes state and federal policymakers, an environmental advocate, and a project developer. All agreed that the Obama administration is on the right track with its commitment to bring relevant stakeholders together early in the process and in its preference for reviewing projects on a landscape scale.
David Hayes, Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Interior, set the scene, noting that when the Obama administration took office, in January 2009, there were 0 megawatts (MW) of solar projects permitted on public lands in the United States. Last year, he said, his office estimated that Interior had permitted 6,500 MW of solar project on public lands, with 3,5000 MW on the way – 10 gigawatts, equivalent to the output of 30 coal-fired power plants, and enough power to serve the needs of 3 million homes.
“We are proving up the case that we can have utility-scale solar power in this country. And public lands are leading the way,” he said.
John Laird, the recently installed Secretary of the California Resources Agency, seemed pleased to remark that for the first time in his career California and the federal government held the same view on the importance of renewable energy.
“It never occurred to me when I graduated from college 40 years ago that one of the key factors was how many of those years would the federal government and the state government be aligned in a way that they could do things together – and we’re in that moment right now,” he said.
Why is this time different? Hayes emphasized that the Obama administration is taking a different approach to approving projects on public lands than its predecessors. Rather than allowing each agency or department to weigh in with concerns individually, over many years, the administration is bringing all parties to the table – early.
“We want to spoil the party right in the beginning,” he said. "Frankly, investors appreciate that.”
“The only way we’ve gotten from 0 to 10,000 MW,” he went on, “is to bring everybody into the process upfront, and do that analysis early, and then see it all the way through.”
Another point of departure from previous administrations, Hayes said, is this administration’s determination to avoid project-by-project reviews in favor of a landscape-level approach. He noted that Interior was nearing the finish line of a planning effort [Solar Energy Development Programmatic EIS] to create solar energy zones on public lands in six Western states.
The aim of the process, said Hayes is “trying to identify areas that make the most sense for the future for these large projects” – in consultation with industry and conservation groups. Sites more likely to be developed, he said, are those near transmission, on already disturbed lands, with relatively few conflicts, and mitigable impacts.
David Festa, West Coast Vice President, Environmental Defense Fund, was encouraged. “This idea that you want to sit down and have a robust discussion about where the right places are is exactly the right way to go. I think it’s a well-thought-out process, and I think the right people are at the table,” he said.
Michael Hatfield, Director of Development, First Solar, agreed, and complimented Hayes and the Department of Interior for its willingness to bring the full spectrum of stakeholders together to advise on solar development.
“From an investors’ perspective,” he said, “anything that helps to reduce risk or uncertainty is a good thing.”
But what about the environmental impact of utility-scale solar on public lands? asked Climate One’s Greg Dalton. “I think the potential here is to have a result where the whole ecosystem is actually better off after development than before development,” said David Festa.
The key is to proceed by following three simple steps, he said. First, avoid impacts where possible. Second, minimize the onsite impacts. Last, use offsetting mitigation for the residual impacts you can’t get rid of.
“The offsetting mitigation then creates this overall rise in the performance of the environment. We think that’s entirely possible,” he said.
– Justin Gerdes
January 30, 2012
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California