The Obama administration opened up federal lands to alternative energy development this month in the first of what promises to be a series of similar announcements. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the federal government’s willingness to put aside environmental criticism and allow two large-scale solar projects to be built on Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-controlled lands in Southern California.

Calling the decisions historic, Salazar said this was the first authorization for construction on BLM-controlled land.

Salazar predicted that both projects would be able to start construction by the end of the year; however, that will depend on how quickly the financing and other factors come together for both. A third solar project to be cited in the state also was approved by BLM last Thursday.

BLM approved the 709 MW Imperial Valley solar project covering approximately 10 square miles in the far southeast corner of California, and a 45 MW solar photovoltaic (PV) project in the Lucerne Valley near Victorville, CA, about 100 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The project approved Thursday is Oakland, CA-based BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah project in the high desert in Southern California near the Nevada border.

Salazar called the announcements “historic” and tried to emphasize that they are the first of what he thinks will be a number of new projects that get the green light for development on BLM lands. “These projects advance President Obama’s agenda for stimulating investment in cutting-edge technology, creating jobs for American workers and promoting clean energy for American homes, businesses and industry,” he said.

Arizona-based Stirling Energy Systems (SES) and its Tessera Solar development arm are building the massive Imperial Valley project, using patented “SunCatcher” technology that has been proven but not deployed on a large scale. It would include upwards of 30,000 25-kW patented SunCatcher modules, or solar dishes, fitted with Stirling engines, covering 6,360 acres. Chevron Energy Solutions is developing the solar PV project in San Bernardino County, using 40,500 solar panels covering 422 acres.

While reiterating that the BLM endorsement verifies his state’s renewable energy leadership, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the two projects gaining the first BLM permits will help infuse more than $1 billion into the state’s economy, power between 226,000 and 500,000 homes and create 950 jobs in Imperial and San Bernardino counties.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) last Wednesday approved the Imperial Valley Project, one of six large-scale solar developments it has approved in the past month, and the first to get the corresponding BLM approval. The Chevron project did not require CEC permitting since it is under 50 MW, but it has gone through a local permitting process. Earlier in September the CEC approved the 370 MW Ivanpah project, which was scaled back from its original proposal for a plant approaching 750 MW of capacity.

“[These] solar projects carry the distinction of being the first large-scale solar energy projects ever approved for construction on our nation’s public lands,” Salazar said. “Just two years ago it would have required a great stretch of the imagination to envision this day.”

Salazar said companies have been “very eager to capture solar power on public lands,” but what he called dozens of permit applications have languished. He claims that during his almost two-year tenure at the Interior Department the federal government has cut through a backlog of applications and now is looking at more approvals of other solar projects in the next eight weeks.

He said “smart, coordinated permitting” is speeding up the processes, and he insists that despite growing criticism from some environmental groups, the federal agency is doing it “without cutting corners.”

Salazar said the mitigation requirements will keep the appropriate environmental balance. “Environmental groups that were at the outset against the project are now in support of it,” he said. “We’re trying to enhance conservation [of species, habitat, etc.] as we are building one of these renewable energy projects.”

BLM Director Bob Abbey said BLM has worked with “many, many interests” regarding these projects and developed appropriate actions to mitigate the impacts from the renewable development.

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