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Can the Silver State become the Solar State?

Nevada is off to an impressive start in the solar sweepstakes. In August, UNLV hosted a national clean energy conference. In Boulder City, Solar One is producing thermal solar power. In Las Vegas, Ausra is manufacturing solar plant components.

Now a land rush is under way to locate and stake out solar collector sites on the public lands of Southern Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management has dozens of applications piling up to lease more than a million acres of public land, much of it in Nevada. And the agency seems confused and indecisive on how to proceed.

In May, the BLM declared a two-year moratorium on solar site applications. Then in June, in the face of protests, it backed down and lifted the moratorium. Now the agency says it will process applications first come, first served, just like mining claims in the days of the Comstock Lode.

First come, first served, is a bad idea that could do real harm to Nevada’s energy leadership. Each application for a solar site is likely to be challenged by environmentalists upset by the prospect of pristine desert landscapes smothered under thousands of acres of panels and mirrors. Lawsuits that take years to resolve can only reduce Nevada’s current lead. To see what can happen, one only need to look across the border at site selection lawsuits already filed in California.

A first come, first served policy will also drive up costs and erode Nevada’s advantage by inviting land speculators into the process. Speculators from Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have already applied to tie up tracts of land. Their activity will inevitably drive up prices paid by legitimate solar developers. And those costs will ultimately be passed on to electricity consumers.

There is a better way — it’s called planning. The BLM should invite leaders from the solar industry, environmentalists, Nevada universities, the electric utilities and county commissioners to a summit to assess possible sites on the public lands. It should then use the results to affirmatively designate two or three solar parks on which facilities can be developed without further delay.

Solar parks, with shared infrastructure and access to transmission lines, could both speed the approval process and reduce costs. Solar parks would also minimize the impact upon pristine desert areas of Southern Nevada. And they would make it easier to control speculation — there should be a sign at the entrance to each solar park that says, “Don’t bother to apply unless you have a signed contract from a power company willing to take and distribute the energy you plan to produce.”

Nevada is off to a good start in this solar race. It should not jeopardize that lead by allowing the BLM to abdicate its responsibility by letting site location degenerate into a frenzy of land speculation and desert destruction. By planning and designing solar parks, Nevada can demonstrate to the nation how to develop an efficient and environmentally sustainable solar power industry.

The Silver State could well become the Solar State.

Bruce Babbitt is a former Arizona governor and secretary of the interior.

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