July 3, 2008

Sun shines on solar again

Caving to public, political pressure, BLM lifts moratorium

By Lisa Mascaro, Phoebe Sweet
Las Vegas Sun

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid looks over a mirror Monday during the grand opening of Ausra’s plant in Las Vegas. The company manufactures components for solar thermal power plants. Reid opposed a moratorium on new solar applications, which was rescinded Wednesday.

The Bureau of Land Management clearly had no idea what kind of blowback it would receive when, a month ago, it closed the door on applications to build solar plants on federal land in Nevada and five other Southwest states to buy time to study their environmental consequences.

On Wednesday, BLM officials collected themselves, gamely thanked the public for its concerns and reversed its moratorium.

The agency suggested its change of course is an example of its ability to nimbly respond to public outcry.

“We heard the concerns expressed during the (public meetings) about waiting to consider new applications and we are taking action,” BLM Director James Caswell said in a statement Wednesday.

But the more complete back story is that the agency — operating under an administration focused on the pursuit of oil and gas — did not consider that the nascent solar industry had friends in high places, including Congress, and bowed to external political pressure.

The reversal came two weeks after Sen. Harry Reid learned from a Las Vegas Sun article that the BLM was implementing a 22-month freeze on solar projects. He immediately vowed to fight it, referring to it only as a “proposed delay.”

The onslaught of media and political attention that followed made the moratorium all but unsustainable.

After the Sun story, growing criticism of the moratorium stretched as far as the Daily Telegraph of London and the Economist, which headlined an article “Freezing the Sun.” When The New York Times picked it up Friday, the end was near.

The story line that emerged was politically poisonous in an election year.

With $4-a-gallon-and-rising gas prices the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, the country faces general anxiety over energy supplies. Stopping solar now seemed to be the wrong approach.

And on Monday, while attending the opening of a solar mirror manufacturing plant in Las Vegas, Reid said the moratorium was the wrong move, “especially when you consider that as we speak tens of millions of acres are leased to oil companies for drilling. It’s the most oil-friendly administration in the history of our country. Bush and Cheney made their fortunes in oil and this is another indication they are turning their backs on anything other than oil.”

But he — and several solar industry insiders at the opening of solar developer Ausra’s plant — said they hadn’t expected the BLM to hold out against that political pressure for long.

After all, over the past two weeks the agency has been lobbied by scores of solar companies at meetings across the Southwest and by industry groups in Washington. The Solar Energy Industries Association met with BLM executives several times after the freeze was imposed.

Reid’s staff engaged in informal inquiries with the BLM and reached out to others who were concerned about the solar shutdown to determine their next steps.

Even Gov. Jim Gibbons got in on the act, sending a letter opposing the freeze to Caswell and Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne on June 25.

Celia Boddington, a spokeswoman for BLM, said the bureau was well aware that Capitol Hill was now engaged. “Clearly there was interest from Congress on this issue,” she said. “We anticipated continued congressional interest.”

Still, she insisted it was a “high level of public interest” that in the end swayed Caswell. The agency, after all, is used to public outrage on issues from wild horse euthanasia to coal-fired power plants to the aforementioned oil and gas drilling in prized wilderness.

But even as the solar industry protested, insiders said they doubted the freeze would last beyond the Bush administration, if that long.

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said this week that “regardless of who’s elected (president), he will realize how important it is for the federal government to provide a pathway for carbon-free energy technology to be built in this country.”

Still, Resch also let on that the industry wasn’t done flexing its newfound political muscle.

BLM has “only fixed part of the problem,” he said.

The agency, which manages 67 percent of Nevada land, has yet to approve a single one of the approximately 130 applications to use federal land for solar farms that it’s received in the past three years.

BLM has received 23 Nevada applications, including 11 in Nye County and 12 in Clark County, that would involve 211,000 acres of federal land and could produce 15,000 megawatts of electricity, more than twice the peak summer load in Southern Nevada. Most of the Nevada applications were filed in 2007.

The 130 applications nationwide, if approved, would power 20 million American homes, according to the BLM.

“We now need BLM to start ... issuing permits to build these plants,” Resch said. “The longer they wait the more the public is going to suffer from escalating fuel costs.”

But BLM officials have said a study to determine the environmental consequences of solar projects is necessary to streamline the individual reviews of each project.

The industry has been careful not to oppose the environmental study itself. Resch and other insiders have said it was the freeze, not the study, that they found unfair. During a similar 2006 federal study of wind power on federal land, BLM did not invoke a moratorium.

“What they should be doing is staffing up to process the applications (they have) in a prompt way so we can move forward,” said Robert Fishman, chief executive of Ausra.

Representatives of local environmental groups said Wednesday that they had not lobbied Caswell to rescind the freeze, but that they, too, opposed it. Charles Benjamin, director of the Nevada office of Western Resource Advocates, said the environmental review, however, is necessary.

“I think it’s a good move on the part of BLM to lift the moratorium while continuing the assessment, because we are at a critical point with ... solar power,” he said. Solar “has the potential to replace coal and natural gas plants, and even nuclear plants, as baseload energy. To put a moratorium on applications would actually impair the development of technology, which is at a critical juncture.”