Solar energy proponents and policymakers alike recognize that utility-scale solar development in the U.S. – particularly on public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – faces fierce regulatory hurdles.
In response to this disconcerting trend, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Natural Resources held an oversight hearing this week to identify specific permitting roadblocks and explore potential solutions.
The committee's Republican majority is currently promoting an energy plan called the American Energy Initiative, which focuses on expanding U.S.-based production of both renewable energy and fossil fuels. This week's hearing targeted solar energy and wind energy development, which the committee says are an integral part of any long-term energy strategy.
‘Time after time, renewable energy projects that the Obama administration has highlighted its support for have been canceled, held up or defunded due to their own policies or their inability to follow through with licensing or permitting,’ said Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., in an opening statement.
‘Often, BLM's regulatory structure is so complicated and slow that companies don't bother applying, opting instead for private land,’ he added. ‘Our public land has specifically been designated as multi-use. It simply makes no sense that the ability to access it, including for energy development, is so cumbersome and uninviting.’
In his testimony, Rhone Resch, Solar Energy Industries Association president and CEO, criticized the BLM's designation of certain ‘solar energy study areas’ (i.e., potential future solar energy development zones).
While acknowledging that not all BLM-managed land is appropriate for solar development, Resch denounced the BLM's policy of allowing development only within the designated zones as ‘overly restrictive’ and warned that it ‘would thwart development and undermine the renewable energy goals Congress set out for BLM in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
‘Much more needs to be known about the solar energy zones to make them a useful option for solar energy developers,’ Resch added. ‘Only a cursory review of the zones has been conducted, and neither BLM nor a developer can affirmatively state that a solar power plant belongs within any of the zones.’
Consequently, the solar zones – which were created under the BLM's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) – provide no true incentive for development, according to Resch. He called for policymakers to provide solar developers with the flexibility to site their projects on BLM land outside of the designated zones.
Frank DeRosa, senior vice president of North American project development for First Solar, also cited the PEIS and its solar zones as a chief concern.
Noting that the zones currently comprise less than 1% of BLM-managed land, he urged the BLM not only to re-evaluate the true suitability of designated zones and allow development outside the zones, but also to grandfather existing ‘non-zone’ projects that are now in advanced stages of development.
‘Businesses require a predictable, transparent set of rules when making multi-hundred-million dollar decisions,’ DeRosa said, citing First Solar's Silver State South PV project, which is not in a solar zone but already has a power purchase agreement and transmission interconnection position.
‘The BLM must not undermine viable, near-term projects that were sited several years ago and remain subject to rigorous scrutiny under [the National Environmental Policy Act],’ he stated.
In addition to the problems posed by the PEIS and its solar energy zones, solar project developers have also been forced to contend with a series of inconsistently, vaguely or possibly inappropriately applied rules and regulations from the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
For instance, the compliance rules for the FWS' Eagle Conservation Plan, which was originally developed for – and has been widely criticized by – the wind energy industry, have been applied by regional staff to some solar energy projects. Resch called this crossover ‘wholly inappropriate’ and questioned the Eagle Conservation Plan's applicability to solar development.
‘A solar developer cannot reasonably be expected to comply with guidance for wind development,’ he said.
Both Resch and DeRosa stressed the importance of stakeholder involvement with regard to BLM rules development and related issues. Such cooperation might have allowed for mutually agreeable land rent sums to be set for solar energy developers, for instance.
‘The rents established by the policy [issued in June 2010] appear to have been based largely on the value of irrigated agricultural lands, which have a higher value than the non-irrigated lands on which most projects are proposed,’ DeRosa pointed out.
BLM-set rents are double what a developer might pay for nearby private land, Resch added, calling the charges ‘excessive.’ Coupled with the extra costs inherent to public-lands development, the pricing is likely dissuading solar developers from pursuing public-lands projects and driving up private-sector rents, he said.