July 2, 2008

Feds backtrack on solar energy moratorium

Margot Roosevelt
Los Angeles Times

Solar plant in the Mojave Desert.
Credit: PBS

Solar companies went ballistic last month when the federal Bureau of Land Management slapped a moratorium on new applications to build solar energy plants on the 258 million acres that the bureau manages, mostly in California and 11 other Western states.

Wednesday, the bureau reversed itself -- lifting the moratorium."We heard the concerns," said BLM director James Caswell. "We will aggressively help meet growing interest in renewable energy sources, while ensuring environmental protections."

Already, the BLM has 125 applications in hand to build solar plants, mostly in isolated desert areas. But those deserts can host fragile wildlife and transmission lines must cross vast acreage to reach power-hungry cities. The BLM has been hearing public comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for large solar plants. Three public hearings remain, including July 8 in Tucson, July 9 in San Luis Obispo, and July 10 in El Centro, Calif.

California's investor-owned utilities are moving rapidly into solar and wind energy, driven by a state regulation requiring that 20% of their electricity be generated by renewable sources by 2010. Last week, the California Air Resources Board issued a draft plan to require all the state's utilities to rely on renewables for a third of their power by 2020.