Feds approve three big clean power projects in the west

The newly minted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Monday announced the first approval of three renewable energy projects on public lands under her watch: two solar farms and one geothermal power plant in western United States.

Jewell, who was the CEO of sports equipment retailer REI before becoming the head of the Interior Department in April, is carrying on a program that started by her predecessor, Ken Salazar, who oversaw some massive planning efforts to figure out appropriate places to locate renewable energy generation projects.

One of the efforts created a solar energy development road map last year that identified 285,000 suitable acres in six western states overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The road map, called Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, not only pinpoints suitable land but also sets the framework for carrying out the environmental impact study for each proposed project. With this blue print, the federal government expects to speed up and improve its process for permitting solar power plants. The government divided the 285,000 acres into 17 energy zones in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The energy zones could accommodate 23.7 GW of solar energy projects, or enough to run 7 million American homes, the BLM estimated.

While renewable energy is way more desirable than power from fossil fuel power plants, its development requires thoughtful plans that aim to minimize its impact on water, wildlife and other resources. Over the past five years, as more big solar farms began to rise from remote regions of the western states, we’ve also seen an increase in lawsuits to slow down or stop certain projects from moving forward.

And, as it’s typically the case, it’s hard to gauge the long-term impact of the public policies we’ve just begun to put to work.

The three projects Jewell touted on Monday totaled 520 MW, or good for powering 200,000 homes. Each developer signed a 30-year lease that requires them to pay a fee based on the land value and the energy production potential of each property. Here is a description of each:

  • Quartzsite Solar Project: California-based SolarReserve is developing this 100 MW project located on 1,600 acres in La Paz County, Ariz. The company plans to erect giant flat mirrors that will concentrate and direct the sunlight to heat water in a tank near the top of a tower. The steam produced will then run a turbine generator to create electricity.
  • Midland Solar Project: Boulder Solar Power plans to build this 350MW solar farm in Nevada on 1,554 acres that the nearby City of Boulder has leased to the Korean Midland Power Co. The project, which will use solar panels, underwent federal review because its transmission line goes through 76 acres of BLM land.
  • New York Canyon Geothermal Project: TGP Dixie Development, part of TerraGen Power, will build this 70 MW power plant and a 230-kilovolt transmission line on 15,135 acres,  about 25 miles east of Lovelock, Nevada.