Solar plant site ban lifted


Two days after Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., promised the government would end its moratorium on applications for solar power sites, the Bureau of Land Management did just that.

The decision also followed a June 25 letter from Gov. Jim Gibbons, urging Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to lift the moratorium and start accepting applications to build solar power plants on public lands.

The issue dates back to May 29 when the bureau said it would stop taking applications from developers to build solar thermal power plants, sometimes called concentrating solar plants, on federal land. The bureau is developing rules for dealing with applications.

The agency had said it would continue processing 125 pending solar applications but would not accept new ones for the next 22 months while the new rules are prepared.

Solar developers complained that the move was creating a barrier for new power plants just as the industry was taking off.

BLM Director James Caswell on Wednesday announced that the agency listened to complaints aired at public meetings and decided to reverse its decision.

Reid said Monday during a ceremony for a new solar power assembly plant in Las Vegas that the moratorium would be lifted within a few months, "because it is against common sense and fairness."

In a letter to the interior secretary, Gibbons wrote that the bureau administers 67 percent of Nevada's land, more than in any of the other five Western states affected by the moratorium.

Therefore, the moratorium "will have an adverse and disproportional effect on our efforts to develop Nevada's solar energy resources," Gibbons said.

Reid said: "Nevada is the Saudi Arabia of solar energy, and is poised to lead a global clean energy revolution, and we need to do all we can to encourage public and private investment in projects to develop this amazing potential."

Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said Wednesday's decision was crucial.

"We are just at the dawn of this (solar) industry making a significant contribution to our energy portfolio," Resch said. "This is going to be one of the fastest growing segments of the energy industry going forward."

Resch called the Desert Southwest "the best location in the world to build solar plants." He predicted dozens of concentrating solar plants will be generating power in the Southwest within 10 years.

The utility-size plants use mirrors to focus the sun's heat to turn water into steam that is used to turn electricity-generating turbines.

Nevada Solar One, which Acciona Energy completed last summer at Boulder City, is a concentrating solar thermal plant. Ausra, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that opened a solar thermal assembly plant in Las Vegas on Monday, uses similar technology.

The bureau's decision is "welcome news," Ausra Vice President Holly Gordon said Wednesday.

"With our environmentally sound and reliable technology, we look forward to working with the BLM as their review process moves forward," Gordon said.

Charles Benjamin, Nevada director of Western Resource Advocates, said the bureau should take time to study plant sites carefully. But he added that he favors solar energy as an alternative to coal- and natural gas-fired plants that contribute to global warming with carbon dioxide pollution.

Contact reporter John G. Edwards at jedwards@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0420.