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Published on June 2nd, 2015 | by Tina Casey

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Look Out Coal, Here Comes Fast-Track Solar

June 2nd, 2015 by  


The Obama Administration seems to be messing with someone’s minds, and we’re guessing that the US coal industry is its target. Late last week, the US Bureau of Land Management announced that it was issuing 28 new coal leases on federal property in Wyoming, only to follow up a few days later with a huge solar announcement: the first three fast-track solar projects in the agency’s new Western Solar Plan have just been approved and they will tote up to an impressive 440 megawatts.

If coal executives were cheered by the Administration’s continued support for their favorite fossil, the fast-track solar announcement sure must have shut down that party, and this is only the beginning.

BLM Nevada fast track solar

Fast-Track Solar In The USA

The three projects come under the Western Solar Plan, which the Department of the Interior set up in 2012. The Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was tasked with seeing it through.

Keep in mind that for generations, BLM has been the agency responsible for leasing out fossil projects on federal property, and now look at how it enthuses over the latest addition to its energy portfolio:

Solar radiation levels in the Southwest are some of the best in the world, and the BLM manages more than 19 million acres of public lands with excellent solar energy potential in 6 states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. State renewable energy portfolios, investment tax credits for solar energy projects, volatile oil prices, and international concern about global warming have all contributed toward public and industry interest in utility-scale solar energy development.

Western solar potential is somewhat limited by the large swaths of flat land required by utility-scale solar, as well as water resources issues and other environmental concerns. Still, under the Obama Administration, BLM has already racked up more than 8,500 MW (megawatts) of solar energy among 29 projects, and more than 70 applications are pending.



 

The Western Solar Plan is intended to speed things along by setting up pre-approved fast track solar zones in areas with high solar potential and “low conflict,” covering Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. One important criterion is proximity to existing or planned transmission lines, and so far 19 zones have been identified.

If you guessed that many megawatts are involved, run out and buy yourself a cigar. BLM estimates that if and when solar potential in the zones is fully exploited, the total would top out at 27,000 MW. That’s 27 gigawatts for those of you keeping score at home, around enough for 8 million homes.

But wait, there’s more. BLM has also identified areas for solar that could be called into play on a case-by-case basis.

First There Were Three…

With all that in mind, let’s look at the first three projects to come up through the new fast-track solar process.

Fittingly, all three are located in the Dry Lake region of Clark County, Nevada, which also happens to be the home of Nellis Air Force Base, an early adopter of onsite, utility-scale solar.

The three projects were awarded to the winners of a competitive bidding process. That would be Invenergy (the Harry Allen Solar Energy Center), First Solar (Playa Solar Project), and NV Energy (Dry Lake Solar Energy Center).

A case-by-case review of the three projects would have taken close to two years, but under the Western Solar Plan, the reviews for all three took less than 10 months.

Included in the package is a “robust” mitigation plan that covers a range of environmental issues such as long-term wildlife monitoring (think tortoises, birds, and bats) as well as relocating plants from the construction site to other areas.

Solar vs. Coal

Here’s where it gets interesting. Since these are renewable energy projects, there is no such thing as tapping out the field. In addition, the market for solar energy is strictly domestic, which means that you are not going to get the kind of environmental issues — and public pushback — related to fuel transportation and export, let alone local public health hazards on top of climate change issues.

Coal can’t compete, at least not domestically. The cost of solar is sinking like a stone and the US coal-burning industry is shutting down, and the country’s one showcase “clean coal” facility, the $1 billion FutureGen project, has gone dark.

Our friends over at Think Progress have made the point that as crazy as the BLM’s new round of coal leases may look from a climate change perspective, given the current energy scenario, all that coal won’t reach the domestic market. Now that the Western Solar Plan’s fast-track solar process is beginning to bear fruit, the future looks pretty gloomy for coal sales in the US.

As for relying on exports to take up the slack, take a look over at China’s dramatic coal turnaround and it’s pretty clear that the global market for coal doesn’t look all that rosy, either.

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Image Credit (screenshot): Solar array courtesy of Nellis Air Force Base
 


 


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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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