The Biden administration has approved two big solar projects on federal land in Riverside, California, with a third nearing full endorsement. The three solar farms in the California desert would generate enough electricity to power about 132,000 homes, or produce about 1,000 megawatts, with a cost of around $689 million to build. These installations are part of the Biden-Harris administration’s “all-of-government approach toward its ambitious renewable energy goals,” according to Secretary Deb Haaland, which include “historic investments in boosting climate resiliency, advancing clean energy projects, and replacing aging infrastructure.”
The Department of the Interior announcement about the solar commitments showcases how the Biden-Harris administration intends to promote clean energy plans while figuring how to sidestep Senator Joe Manchin (D-Coal). Manchin did a total reversal of position this week on pledges to support the Build Back Better (BBB) act. As a result, the BBB legislation lies fallow in Congress, although the administration is insistent it will resurrect the BBB in early 2022.
Building infrastructure and creating jobs to advance a clean energy future is an important goal of the Biden-Harris administration to satisfy its progressive base. Previously, Congress passed the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails, expand access to clean drinking water, ensure more people in the US have access to high-speed internet, seek solutions to the climate crisis, advance environmental justice, and invest in communities that have too often been left behind.
Now come the Arica, Victory Pass, and Oberon solar projects. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) approval authorizes Clearway Energy Group, LLC a right-of-way to construct, operate, maintain, and decommission two separate photovoltaic solar facilities in a reduced footprint to avoid sensitive resources. The solar projects fall within areas identified as suitable for renewable energy development as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), which centers on 10.8 million acres of public lands in the desert regions of 7 California counties. This landscape-level focus streamlines renewable energy development while conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.
The Arica and Victory Pass photovoltaic solar projects will generate a total of up to 465 megawatts of electricity with up to 400 megawatts of battery storage. Together, these renewable energy projects will result in an estimated $5.9 million in annual operational economic benefit and power approximately 132,000 homes.
The Oberon solar project is a separate 500-megawatt photovoltaic project. Located on 2,700 acres of public land in Riverside County, it is expected to generate 500 megawatts of renewable energy and power nearly 142,000 homes. This project will be sited on 2,700 acres of public lands.
Western solar energy zones: The BLM is also soliciting interest for utility-scale solar energy development on nearly 90,000 acres of public land in Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. The solicitation is the agency’s largest for solar development interest since it designated 17 solar energy zones in a comprehensive 2012 solar energy planning effort. The BLM is currently processing 54 utility-scale onshore clean energy projects proposed on these western public lands. This includes 40 solar projects, 4 wind projects, 4 geothermal projects, and 6 interconnect gen-tie lines that are vital to clean energy projects proposed on non-federal land. The 54 projects have the combined potential to add over 27,500 megawatts of renewable energy to the western electric grid.
The DRECP is a collaborative effort between the BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, California Energy Commission, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. To approve these sites for renewable energy projects, the Department and the BLM work with Tribal governments, local communities, state regulators, industry, and other federal agencies. The BLM is also undertaking the preliminary review of 64 applications for solar and wind development, as well as 47 applications for wind and solar energy testing.
Big Solar Projects Emerge from Biden without Congressional Approval
Earlier this month, an Executive Order was released with the focus on catalyzing clean energy industries and creating jobs through federal sustainability. Now the big solar project approvals are significant because they represent some of policy tools available to a US President without Congressional approval. These alternative routes are necessary right now with a deadlocked Congress as the Biden administration pushes toward goals to reduce carbon emissions by half by 2020 through new energy sources. Of course, rejecting fossil fuels is a political hot potato, with opponents like Manchin heavily indebted to coal and other industries for their campaign support and personal wealth.
Biden’s signature policy agenda, the BBB, includes $555 billion in clean energy tax credits. And it’s not only Manchin who can hold up the legislation. In February, 2022, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case brought by coal companies and Republican-led states to limit the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
“All bets are off with this Supreme Court,” said John Podesta, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, speaking on The Tent podcast. “It’s definitely a challenge.” We need to go to a net zero economy by 2050, Podesta argues, acknowledging that there are “people with higher ambition, and people who just didn’t show up” at COP26. With “no Republican support,” the BBB has strong climate investments which can help Biden to succeed in the climate promises he has made to the world. Podesta noted that benefits of the legislation will create “millions of jobs” and “environmental injustice” and will “clean up frontline communities which have borne the brundt of industry.”
In addition to eliminating emissions from fossil fuels in the electricity sector by 2035, Biden has pledged to cut US emissions at least 52% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. As part of that effort, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) fuel and vehicle regulations expert Ted Sears has been tasked with supporting the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) in efforts to convert the federal fleet to zero-emission vehicles.
“The efficient deployment of renewable energy projects will create good-paying jobs and are crucial in achieving the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035,” Tracy Stone-Manning, the director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), said in the Department of the Interior statement. “Investing in clean and reliable renewable energy represents the BLM’s commitment for addressing climate change and supports Congress’ direction in the Energy Act of 2020 to permit 25 gigawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal production on public lands no later than 2025.”
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