Biden administration moves to expand solar power on U.S. land

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2017, file photo, solar arrays line the desert floor of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone as part of the 179 megawatt Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2 Solar Projects north of Las Vegas. The Biden administration on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, issued a solicitation for interest in developing solar power on public lands in Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)
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Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. officials announced approval Tuesday of two solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in three other Western states to potential solar development, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Arica and Victory Pass solar projects in Riverside County east of Los Angeles, which combined would generate up to 465 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 132,000 homes. Approval of a third solar farm — planned for 500 megawatts and known as Oberon — is expected in coming days, officials said.

The land agency also on Tuesday issued a call to nominate land for development within “solar energy zones” in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that combined cover about 140 square miles (360 square kilometers).

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. That’s a pronounced change from Republican President Donald Trump’s emphasis on coal mining and oil and gas drilling.

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 Sen. Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centerpiece climate and social services legislation.

During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Deb 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 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,” Haaland said. “We are rebuilding that capacity.”

The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land primarily in Western states.

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said officials are currently considering 40 large-scale solar proposals in the West. 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% 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% 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% 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.