By: Aaron McDade – Newsweek – Officials from the Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday announced the approval of two solar energy projects in California and also issued a call for land to be nominated in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada for the development of solar energy projects as the Biden administration attempts to shift to renewable energy.
The Arica and Victory Pass projects were approved in California’s Riverside County and would generate as much as 465 megawatts of electricity, enough to power an estimated 132,000 homes, according to the Associated Press.
Officials requested nominations of about 140 square miles of land within “solar energy zones” in the three other states.
Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning said officials are considering around 40 “large-scale” solar energy proposals in the West.
The approval and call for more projects come as the administration is trying to re-establish connections with the renewable energy industry, many of which were severed under former President Donald Trump, whose administration focused on oil and gas drilling and coal mining.
“The Trump administration did more than just stall clean energy development over the last few years. At Interior, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, they shuttered offices and undermined long-term agreements,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. “We are rebuilding that capacity.”
Approval of a third California solar farm—planned for 500 megawatts and known as Oberon—is expected in coming days, officials said.
The solicitation of interest comes as officials under Democratic President Joe Biden promote renewable wind and solar power on public lands and offshore to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
Yet the Biden administration was unsuccessful in an attempt to suspend oil and gas sales from public lands and waters after a judge ordered sales to resume following a lawsuit from Republican-led states. Biden suffered another huge blow to his climate change agenda this week, as opposition from West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centerpiece climate and social services legislation.
During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Haaland did not directly address a question about the faltering bill and instead pointed to clean energy provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.
“We fully intend to meet our clean energy goals,” Haaland said, adding that the administration was trying to make up lost ground.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land primarily in Western states.
In early December, the agency issued a draft plan to reduce rents and other fees paid by companies authorized to build wind and solar projects on public lands.
In Nevada, where the federal government owns and manages more than 80 percent of the state’s land, large-scale solar projects have faced opposition from environmentalists concerned about harm to plants and animals in the sun- and windswept deserts.
Developers abandoned plans for what would have been the country’s largest solar panel installation earlier this year north of Las Vegas amid concerns from local residents. Environmentalists are fighting another solar project near the Nevada-California border that they claim could harm birds and desert tortoises.
Stone-Manning said solar projects on public lands are being sited to take environmental concerns into account.
The solar development zones were first proposed under the Obama administration, which in 2012 adopted plans to bring utility-scale solar energy projects to public lands in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Officials to date have identified almost 1,400 square miles (3,500 square kilometers) of public land for potential leasing for solar power development.
If all that land were developed, the bureau says it could support more than 100 gigawatts of solar power, or enough electricity for 29 million homes. That’s roughly equal to total U.S. solar power capacity already in place, with solar production from federal lands currently just a small fraction of that amount.
In November the land bureau awarded solar leases for about 8 square miles (19 square kilometers) of land in Utah’s Milford Flats solar zone. Solar leases are expected to be finalized by the end of the month for about 13 square miles (34 square kilometers) of land at several sites in Arizona, officials said.
Solar power on public and private lands accounted for about 3 percent of total U.S. electricity production in 2020. After construction costs fell during the past decade, that figure is expected to grow sharply, to more than 20 percent of production by 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected last month.
But solar power developers warn costs have been rising due to constraints on supplies of steel, copper, semiconductor chips, and other construction materials.