Big solar on US public lands finally goes online

The Obama administration has been signing off on the development of utility-scale solar power on public lands left and right, and now the first of those big projects has come online.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was on hand to “flip the switch” on the Enbridge Silver State North Solar Project in Clark County, Nev., earlier this month. The 50-megawatt (MW) project, 40 miles south of Las Vegas, will use photovoltaic (PV) technology to power nearly 9,000 Nevada homes. The project is owned by Enbridge and was developed by First Solar.

The administration has been touting an all-of-the-above energy strategy that stretches from oil and gas, to wind power, to this sort of massive solar development in the Southwest.

Pre-Obama, no big solar energy projects had been permitted on public lands. But according to the Interior Department, Silver State North — approved by Salazar in October 2010 — is one of at least 28 renewable energy projects approved for construction on or involving public lands, including 16 solar plants, five wind farms and eight geothermal plants.

Once completed, these projects are expected to provide more than 6,500 MW of electricity to communities across the west, powering more than 2 million homes. Silver State North will also help Nevada move toward its goal of producing 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Part of the administration’s sales pitch on big solar projects is their job-creating ability in the construction phase. Silver State North, for instance, employed more than 380 workers during peak construction. The Nevada utility NV Energy will purchase and sell the project’s electricity under a 25-year power purchase agreement.

Built on 618 acres of public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Silver State North, set near a major transmission hub, will displace some 42,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to taking 8,000 cars off the road, the government said. The plant is set near a major transmission hub.

Speaking at the dedication ceremony for Silver State North, Salazar called its opening “a landmark day for solar energy and for the nation.” He went on to call its development “a model of industry and government working together to strengthen local economies, generating good jobs and affordable, reliable and sustainable power.”

The administration is walking a bit of a tightrope on energy, aiming to encourage renewables even as it celebrates a boom in domestic production of oil and gas. On the latter front, the Bureau of Land Management this month released proposed rules to require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations, or fracking, on public or Indian lands.

The measure is in line with the rules some states have taken, requiring operators to disclose the chemicals used in activities that take place on public lands. Some traditional fossil-fuel based energy producers feel the new rules are unnecessary and simply add to what they see a pile-up of new rules and regulations favoring green companies.

* Julie Mitchell, EarthTechling