Getting Solar Right

Today's hearing on Capitol Hill regarding the Obama administration's ill-fated investment of taxpayer money in the solar company Solyndra is an expected outcome from a misguided policy focused on creating quick jobs rather than smart investments.  That does not mean that solar is dead, and it does not mean that we should stop supporting innovation and development in our solar industry.  We need to look at our renewable energy needs and ask ourselves what will be driving investment and public support 20 years from now and what policies will get us there, not just what can make headlines tomorrow.

What has been unfolding in America's southwestern deserts since 2009 -- rushed approvals for destructive solar facilities on public land creating only a handful of permanent jobs -- were symptoms of the same political myopia and hasty decisions that came back to bite administration officials at today's hearing.  Obama's footprint in the desert is a clear sign that the White House wants quick wins, no matter the financial or ecological cost.  And the White House's solar policy is not about being "green," as its simultaneous reversal of clean air regulations and approval of coal and oil leases this year indicate a lack of commitment for a healthy environment. 

White House officials throw money at the renewable energy industry to create grand stages for ribbon-cutting ceremonies-- wind turbines up to 30 stories high on our hillsides and massive solar facilities on once wild public land -- but they have ignored policy opportunities to create a foundation for a sustainable renewable energy future.  As the Nature Conservancy of California pointed out, bigger is not always better, pointing to rooftop solar or installations on already-disturbed lands as the best places for renewable energy.

What has the White House's policy on renewable energy accomplished up to this point?:
  • Secretary of Interior Kenneth Salazar issued Internal Memorandum 3285 in March 2009, ordering Interior employees to speed up the environmental review process for large solar facilities on public land.  The order put the cart before the horse and skipped over still-nascent attempts to study the cumulative ecological impacts that could be caused by bulldozing hundreds of square miles of desert habitat for remote solar facilities.
  • Interior employees receive unofficial guidance that projects will receive green lights regardless of expert concerns. 
  • Salazar signed a memorandum of understanding with the Governor of California in October 2009 to further speed up review of solar facilities in the State, paying lip service to "proper siting."  The order encouraged construction of facilities in "solar energy zones" that were still being evaluated for their ecological importance.
  • Department of Interior completes environmental review for several solar projects by late 2010.  Despite analysis that the projects would displace or kill many endangered species, push some rare plants closer to extinction, and even desecrate Native American sacred sites, the projects are approved and recommended for DOE loan guarantees and Treasury grants.
  • Obama's "fast-track" policies were dealt their first blow in December 2010 when a Federal judge casts doubt on the legality of Interior's review of the Imperial Solar power project in California.  The 9 square mile facility would have destroyed Native American burial sites, as well as habitat for imperiled species.  The insincerity of Obama's "green" agenda began to shine through the cracks of broken facade. 
  • The Department of Interior rolls out its Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement in late 2010.  The document evaluates a proposal to make over 32,000 square miles of public land available to solar companies, drawing criticism from conservation groups.
  • The Sierra Club began its legal challenge of the Calico Solar power project in January 2011, targeting the State of California's own rushed review of the project.  By August, the Sierra Club found itself in a coalition with other environmental groups threatening action at the Federal level against Secretary Salazar's approval of the project, citing the project's likely harm to a number of threatened species and a wildlife corridor.  The groups suggest the project should be sited on already-disturbed land.
  • Construction of Brightsource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) was halted in March 2011 when the Department of Interior realizes the death toll for threatened desert tortoises will be much higher than estimated during the rushed environmental review process.  Western Watersheds Project warned of potential faulty tortoise surveys in January when it filed a legal challenge against Interior's approval of ISEGS.  Construction resumes in June, and a judge dismisses the legal challenge on technical grounds, but acknowledges that the challenge raises "serious questions" about the environmental review process.
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) experts proposed wind energy guidelines in February 2011 to minimize the threat spinning turbines pose to wildlife, including Golden Eagles, Sandhill Cranes and bats.  But the Department of Interior decided that industry preference trumped science when they weakened the guidelines in July, according to the American Bird Conservancy.
  • The vast majority of DOE loan guarantees and Treasury grants have gone toward vast projects on public land, including 1.6 billion dollars for the ISEGS project in Ivanpah, and 1.88 billion dollars for First Solar's Desert Sunlight project, which will both destroy over 11 square miles of public land but create only a handful of permanent jobs. These projects will feed energy into expensive new transmission lines.  Transmission lines typically lose 7-15% of the energy they carry, stealing value from the ratepayers.
What should Washington be doing for our renewable energy future? 

As Todd Woody at Forbes lays out, what is missing is a broader policy framework that establishes a market for renewable energy.   Some of the policy tools to consider include:
  • Feed-in-tariffs:  European countries have used feed-in-tariffs (FiTs) to encourage renewable energy generation.  The good thing about FiTs is that they can also be structured to pay home and small business owners for excess energy that they generate with rooftop solar installations.
  • PACE:  I've mentioned this before on the blog, but Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) can go a long way toward creating green jobs, and giving homeowners a means to finance their own rooftop solar installations.  At least 33 states have PACE programs in place, but they are constrained by Federal Housing Finance Administration (FHFA) regulations.  PACE allows homeowners to finance solar installations through their own property tax assessments over time.  Legislation or executive decisions are needed to reverse the FHFA red tape.
  • Instead of the wholesale destruction of public lands proposed by the Department of Interior, the EPA's RE-powering America's Land program should be a key element in siting larger solar installations on already-disturbed lands.  Rooftop solar and facilities on already-disturbed lands are necessary to sustain renewable energy into the future.  Meeting our renewable energy demand with facilities on public land will require thousands of square miles, cost us more in the long run, and destroy the natural resources we hope to save from climate change.
If we're going to continue throwing cash at the problem, Washington should focus on distributed generation efforts that promote a nationwide market and expertise base to install solar panels on rooftops.  We have a lot of urban spaces where solar panels can be built, cutting the need for transmission lines and avoiding the destruction of wildlands. The Department of Energy has now backed two such projects-- Project Amp and Solar Strong -- that are expected to create hundreds of jobs and generate over a gigawatt of energy.


  1. This post is proof positive that GREED not GREEN is what driving this whole desert large scale solar debacle.

    The only reason for the hurry,hurry,rush,rush is the huge money transfer involved from the taxpayers to the industrialists, before the self imposed time limits run out.

    And you know what is so ironic about all this? China, whose insatiable need for more and more electricity, and therefor more and more coal for their power plants; in the process spewing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, which will blow this way, and really jumpstarting the whole climate change scenario, the Chinese will end up cutting our throat on solar pv panel prices, and end up providing most of the panels which will be installed out on the formerly almost pristine Mojave Desert.

    Don't believe me? Go talk to the folks at Evergreen Solar, an American company that just went under- a solar manufacturer here and a longtime advertiser at Home Power magazine, a periodical devoted to folks who want to generate their own home power with rooftop pv solar, solar hot water, small wind turbines, small scale hydroelectric generators to use in streams and creeks, etc.

    And by the way, folks doing that at their homes, didn't kill a single desert tortoise!


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