U.S. Suspends New Solar Projects on Public Land, Reactions Mixed

The hoard of companies rushing to build solar power plants in the U.S. deserts has one big hang-up — there’s just too many of them. This has led the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to put a freeze on new solar plants on public lands until a proper environmental assessment can be done, reports the New York Times this morning.

Such an environmental analysis could take a good two years, which means new applications for solar projects on public lands could be out of luck for that period of time. While this would not effect the more than 130 solar proposals that have been filed with the Bureau since 2005, it could put a damper on startups and entrepreneurs that have been late on getting their paperwork in. The Times report quotes execs from Ausra and Solel on how the freeze is a disturbing setback.

On the other hand, other solar companies say that the moratorium on new applications will actually be a good way to streamline an inundated application process. Charles Ricker, senior vice president of marketing and business development for Oakland-based solar thermal company BrightSource, says that the “process is getting clogged,” and “there are just too many applications” filed right now.

BrightSource is in favor of the freeze in order to develop a better way to sort through the applications, Ricker says. The company is building plants on public lands and the freeze won’t jeopardize those plans, according to Ricker. BrightSource is one of the solar thermal industry’s leaders and has raised over $115 million from a long list of well known investors like Google.org, BP Alternative Energy, StatoilHydro Venture and Black River, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Morgan Stanley, DBL Investors, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Chevron Technology Ventures.

So it looks like solar companies’ perspective on the moratorium depends on how early and aggressive the company has already been with its application process. A rush of companies looking to capitalize on a booming market isn’t uncommon, just most of the time it’s market conditions that determine which companies will succeed and fail.

The Bureau’s decision would not only affect solar thermal projects on public lands, but also large solar photovoltaic plants on public lands. Martin Roscheisen, the CEO of thin-film solar company Nanosolar, says the public land freeze is an example of why his company favors a multitude of 1 to 10MW-sized municipal solar farms that blend more easily into the existing landscape and electric infrastructure and can be built on private lands.

Rocheisen says his company’s thin-film solar technology can enable such smaller plants on private lands like landfills, which could directly feed into municipal electric distribution as opposed to using transmission lines. Rocheisen contends that because solar thermal technology requires a huge amount of land, “not generally available in the U.S. other than through the government,” as well as transmission infrastructure and water resources, the technology might not be digestible to communities.

While both technologies will likely make up the future of the solar landscape, neither type of new solar project will get consideration until the U.S. Bureau of Land Management takes a thorough look at the eco-consequences.