Colorado public lands solar auction highlights progress made, additional tools needed

Kramer Junction concentrating solar trough project

National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Warren Gretz

The first-ever auction for solar energy development in two of Colorado’s four Solar Energy Zones was a quick one – unfortunately, no solar developers bid on the parcels.

That should not take away from the fact that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has in fact made huge strides in advancing responsible solar energy on public lands since 2009, establishing the Western Solar Plan, 17 solar zones in responsible areas across the southwest, and permitting 25projects totaling more than 8000 Megawatts – enough to power 2.4 million households.  That said, yesterday’s auction highlighted the need for additional tools to build on this great foundation.

The BLM held yesterday’s auction because it received 27 total responses to a public notice on the land parcels this spring, including five formal applications for development.  The economics of solar development are complicated, however, and any number of reasons could be behind the lack of bids: uncertain renewable energy markets, questions about transmission capacity, economic uncertainty around the government shutdown, or other factors.

What is clear is that the BLM has done great work to identify low-conflict zones for development across the west, and that projects built in those pre-screened zones will face fewer problems and cause lower impacts to wildlands and wildlife habitat.  Interest in development has been expressed for other zones, such as the Dry Lake zone outside of Las Vegas, and there will be many more opportunities to advance solar energy development in the zones.

Even with the strong foundation BLM has built with its Western Solar Plan and the fact that solar energy is cost competitive in many markets today, the economic complexities around development mean that we need additional tools to meet President Obama’s goals for doubling our nation’s renewable energy capacity on public lands.

Key among them are the  remarkably bipartisan efforts  underway in Congress to ensure that revenues already collected from renewable energy developers are reinvested in local communities and the land to ensure the health and integrity of the region.

The BLM will also be developing regional plans with local communities and other stakeholders to offset the unavoidable impacts of the solar projects when they are built, adding certainty for developers on the cost of development.  The agency’s broader rulemaking on solar and wind leasing, expected out in draft this winter, also needs to be completed to make sure that the solar industry has the tools necessary to develop energy responsibly – including clear rules for how development should proceed within zones and the criteria to be used in determining whether to consider applications for variance areas.

It’s only been a year since the signing of the BLM’s Western Solar Plan.  The Interior Department has come a long way in a short period of time to build a better way of developing the power we need to make the country safer, more secure and transition towards a clean energy future.  Smart planning can ensure we get the energy we need without sacrificing the places we love.