Citing environmental concerns, US freezes new solar plant construction

The New York Times reports that the Bureau of Land Management has placed a two-year moratorium on new solar projects on public land, saying that it needs to study their environmental impact.

Photovoltaic solar panels in Hesperia, Calif.

The New York Times reports that the Bureau of Land Management has placed a two-year moratorium on new solar projects on public land, saying that it needs to study their environmental impact.

The decision, reached late last month, could threaten the nation's fledgling solar industry, which may be forced to turn to more expensive private land on which to construct plants. In recent years, many solar companies have been seeking leases on federal land, the Times reports:

Much of the 119 million surface acres of federally administered land in the West is ideal for solar energy, particularly in Arizona, Nevada and Southern California, where sunlight drenches vast, flat desert tracts.
Galvanized by the national demand for clean energy development, solar companies have filed more than 130 proposals with the Bureau of Land Management since 2005. They center on the companies’ desires to lease public land to build solar plants and then sell the energy to utilities.
According to the bureau, the applications, which cover more than one million acres, are for projects that have the potential to power more than 20 million homes.

According to the bureau, the environmental impact study will require investigating how plant construction and transmission lines will affect vegetation and wildlife, as well as water use.

Cameron Scott, a blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes that he appreciates the government's caution, noting that such ecological prudence would have been useful before the country jumped into the ethanol business, but that he sees something of a double standard:

[T]he government rarely proceeds with caution when it comes to public lands. In the last couple years, the Bush administration has proposed allowing commerce, roads, off-road vehicles, and concealed weapons on public lands, and has eagerly embraced drilling for oil and natural gas. If fossil fuels warrant endangering these lands, then surely solar power does, too.
Is the Bush administration really so set against decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels that it would fabricate concern for the environment in order to block alternative energy projects? It would appear so.

The Economist notes that the solar industry is now facing a double-whammy, thanks to Congress's failure to renew a solar tax-credit:

Congress has been dithering over extending a valuable investment tax credit for solar-energy projects, which solar advocates say is critical to the future of their industry but which is due to expire at the end of the year. The latest attempt failed in the Senate earlier this month: prospects for a deal before November’s presidential and congressional elections now look dim. Uncertainty has led some investors to delay or abandon projects in the past few months. Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said if the tax credits are allowed to expire at the end of the year, “it will result in the loss of billions of dollars in new investments in solar.”

Some environmentalists support the moratorium. Both the Times and the Economist note that one spokesman for The Wilderness Society, which focuses on conserving federally administered land, has praised the decision.

But others have said that it stalls the development of an important alternative energy just when it is needed most. In a statement (hat tip to Climate Progress), Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) slammed the decision:

This notice of intent is the wrong signal to send to solar power developers, and to Nevadans and Westerners who need and want clean, affordable sun-powered electricity soon. While the BLM's proposed delay won't affect developers with existing applications, it could discourage or slow new development to a crawl.

Update: Following public outcry, the moratorium has been called off.

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