Feds set to approve nearly 1 GW of solar capacity on public land by year’s end

By Matthew Brown (Associated Press)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — U.S. officials announced approval December 21 of two solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in three other Western states to potential solar development, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Africa and Victory Pass solar projects in Riverside County east of Los Angeles, which combined would generate up to 465 MW of electricity. 

Approval of a third solar farm — planned for 500 MW and known as Oberon — is expected in coming days, officials said.

The land agency also 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 kilometers).

The solicitation of interest 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.

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement that government support for renewable energy was a top priority for the agency, which oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land primarily in Western states.

The land bureau in early December issued a draft plan to reduce rents and other fees paid by companies authorized to build wind and solar projects on public lands.

The recent actions mark a pronounced shift from Republican President Donald Trump’s emphasis on coal mining and oil and gas drilling. 

The Biden administration was unsuccessful in an attempt to suspend oil and gas sales from public lands and waters, after a judge ordered sales to resume following a lawsuit from Republican-led states. Biden suffered another blow to his climate change agenda as opposition from West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centerpiece climate and social services legislation.

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 six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Officials to date have identified almost 1,400 square miles (3,500 square kilometers) of public land considered for potential leasing for solar power development.

If all that land were developed, the bureau says it could support more than 100 GW of solar power. That’s roughly equal to total U.S. solar power capacity already in place, with solar production from federal lands currently just a small fraction of that amount.

In November the land bureau awarded solar leases for about 8 square miles (19 square kilometers) of land in Utah’s Milford Flats solar zone. Solar leases are expected to be finalized by the end of the month for about 13 square miles (34 square kilometers) of land at several sites in Arizona, officials said.

Solar power on public and private lands accounted for about 3% of total U.S. electricity production in 2020. After construction costs fell during the past decade, that figure is expected to grow sharply, to more than 20% of production by 2050, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected in November.

But solar power developers warn costs have been rising due to constraints on supplies of steel, copper, semiconductor chips and other construction materials.