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Biden administration moves to expand solar power

Published:Thursday | December 23, 2021 | 12:09 AM
Solar arrays line the desert floor of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Las Vegas.
Solar arrays line the desert floor of the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Las Vegas.

United States officials announced approval on Tuesday of two large-scale solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in other western states to potential solar power development, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.

The Interior Department approved the Arica and Victory Pass solar projects on federal land in Riverside County, east of Los Angeles. Combined, they would generate up to 465 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 132,000 homes, according to San Francisco-based developer Clearway Energy. Approval of a third solar farm planned for 500 megawatts is expected in coming days, officials said.

The Interior Department also Tuesday issued a call to nominate land for development within “solar energy zones” in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that combined cover about 140 square miles (360 square kilometres).

The invitation to developers comes as officials under Democratic President Joe Biden promote renewable wind and solar power on public lands, and offshore, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

Biden suffered a huge blow to his climate agenda this week, as opposition from West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centrepiece climate and social services legislation. The administration also has been forced to resume oil and natural gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and numerous western states, after a federal judge sided with Republican-led states that sued when Biden suspended the sales.

During a Tuesday conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland did not directly address a question about the faltering climate bill, but instead, pointed to clean-energy provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.

But without the climate bill, tax incentives to build large-scale solar farms will drop to 10 per cent of a developer’s total capital costs by 2024, instead of rising to 30 per cent, said Xiaojing Sun, head solar researcher at industry consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.

Incentives for residential-scale solar would go away completely by 2024, she said.

“It will significantly slow down the growth of solar,” Sun said.

However, she added that streamlining access to federal land could help the industry, as large solar farms on non-federal lands face growing local opposition and cumbersome zoning laws.

The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in western states. Agency director Tracy-Stone Manning said boosting renewable energy is now one of its top priorities.

Forty large-scale solar proposals in the west are under consideration, she said.

The agency, in early December, issued a draft plan to reduce rents and other fees paid by companies authorised to build wind and solar projects on public lands. Officials were unable to provide an estimate of how much money that could save developers.

The solar development zones were first proposed under the Obama administration, which in 2012 adopted plans to bring utility-scale solar energy projects to public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Officials have identified almost 1,400 square miles (3,500 square kilometres) of public land for potential leasing for solar power.

If all that land were developed, the bureau says it could support more than 100 gigawatts of solar power, or enough for 29 million homes.

That’s almost equal to all US solar capacity now in place.

The power-generation capacity of solar farms operating on federal lands is a small fraction of that amount – just over 3 gigawatts, federal data show.

Solar power on public and private lands accounted for about 3.0 per cent of total US electricity production in 2020. After construction costs fell during the past decade, that figure is expected to grow sharply, to more than 20 per cent by 2050, the US Energy Information Administration projects.