Government to Allow Solar Power Development on Federal Lands

The government said Wednesday it is calling off a recently announced moratorium on applications to build solar plants on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management made the announcement after public opposition to its original decision, reached at the end of May.

The BLM had wanted to put new applications for solar plants on federal land on hold while undertaking a comprehensive review of potential environmental impacts from such plants. That review was not scheduled for completion until May 2010.

Meanwhile, BLM planned to keep processing the applications it's already received for 125 proposed solar projects on about 1 million acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

BLM has yet to approve a solar project on federal land; the solar projects already built or under way in this country are on private property.

Still, industry officials already impatient about the BLM's pace worried that putting a stop to new applications would allow other industries to lay claim to federal land that could go to solar. They feared it would also send the wrong signal to potential investors just as the solar industry is getting started.

"Hitting the brakes before we'd really gotten off the ground was definitely a scary prospect for the industry," said Katherine Gensler, manager of regulatory and legislative affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

BLM Director James Caswell said the agency's action Wednesday was intended to address such concerns.

"By continuing to accept and process new applications for solar energy projects, we will aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources, while ensuring environmental protections," he said in a statement.

Just this week, while officiating at the opening of a solar manufacturing plant in his home state of Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had vowed to get BLM to overturn the moratorium.

Reid's spokesman, Blair Hinderliter, said the Democratic senator was "extremely happy" about BLM's announcement.

Nevada is more than 85 percent federal land and is a prime destination for solar because of its climate and terrain.

The BLM's environmental review is taking place in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, the states deemed to contain public lands with solar resources.

BLM's decision to reverse the solar application moratorium comes as the alternative energy industry remains jittery about another issue: a $6 billion package of alternative energy tax credits, including about $1.3 billion for solar, that's gotten stalled in Congress. Reid wants to get that resolved after lawmakers return from the July 4 holiday.

There are currently nine utility-scale solar plants in the U.S. capable of producing a combined 425 megawatts of solar power, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Solar industry officials and environmental groups agreed that BLM, which has granted numerous leases to the oil and gas industry, needs to move faster on the solar proposals.

"The real problem here is that the Bush administration is starving key government agencies of the resources they need to effectively do their jobs," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director.