The Biden administration is scrambling to keep its net-zero energy agenda alive. Despite an injection of government cash fueled by the “Inflation Reduction Act,” clean energy projects still faced massive headwinds including supply chain issues, high interest rates, and, ironically, continued reliance on fossil fuels.
After wind energy’s very bad year, President Biden now intends to catalyze utilize-scale solar energy generation out West.
The Department of Interior outlined its goal to harness 1,700 megawatts of solar generation to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 in its new Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development. There are six alternative EIS plans the Bureau of Land Management is considering to update its 2012 Western Solar Plan—with the agency’s preferred alternative being one using 22 million acres of federal lands to harness electricity generated by solar power within “10 miles of existing and/or planned transmission lines save for “resource-based exclusion areas.”” Should the agency’s preferred alternative be formally adopted, impacted states would include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. BLM, however, says only 700,000 acres of BLM land – or 3% of the suggested 22 million acre figure – are needed to meet the Biden administration’s solar goals.
A sporting group often aligned with the Biden administration’s environmental agenda warned utility-scale solar development could imperil “priority habitat, migration corridors, and popular public land hunting groups” while the popular Meateater website pointed out the preferred alternative is vague about impacts to wildlife.
“Numerous wildlife species may be adversely impacted by solar energy development causing loss of habitat; disturbance; loss of food and prey species; loss of breeding areas; impacts on movement and migration; introduction of new species; habitat fragmentation; and changes in water availability. Construction and operation of transmission lines and/or meteorological towers can result in bird and bat mortality,” the draft EIS statement reads. “The magnitude of impacts depends on the type, amount, and location of wildlife habitat that would be disturbed, the nature of the disturbance, the wildlife that occupy the area prior to construction, and the timing of construction activities relative to the crucial life stages of wildlife.”
More troubling is utility-scale solar companies could exploit BLM’s proposed flawed Conservation Landscape and Health rule’s “conservation lease” program to offset environment damage they cause on public lands:
“Section 6102.4(a)(3) would specify that conservation leases may be issued either for “restoration or land enhancement” or “mitigation.” The proposed rule would only authorize issuance of conservation leases for ecosystem protection where that protection is related to a restoration or land enhancement project or to support mitigation for a particular action. For example, as part of authorizing a renewable energy project on public lands, the BLM and the project proponent may agree to compensate for loss of wildlife habitat by restoring or enhancing other habitat areas. A conservation lease could be used to protect those areas. Similarly, the BLM may require compensatory mitigation for residual impacts that cannot be avoided. A conservation lease could be used to put compensatory mitigation dollars to work restoring compromised landscapes.”
The L.A. Times, however, argued it will be necessary to destroy anywhere between 700K to 22 million public land acres as a trade off to stopping climate change.
Solar catalyzation is part of the Biden administration’s whole-of-government push to achieve net-zero emissions. Shortly after her confirmation as BLM Director, Trace Stone-Manning told a news outlet that multiple-use management of public lands will prioritize wind and solar development over conventional energy.
“I think (President Biden) has been pretty clear that he expects us to work toward a carbon-free future on our public lands, across our country, in fact,” she said in a 2021 interview. As IWF CEC Senior Fellow Sarah Montalbano noted on IWF’s website, the Department of Interior is slashing solar and wind developer fees by 80% on BLM lands to spur clean energy development:
“To translate from bureaucratese: renewables developers will get steep discounts on renting land and BLM can give leases to whomever it wants without having developers put in bids. This will give renewable energy developers an unfair advantage over coal, oil, and gas companies.”
Recent data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) found governments and industry have invested the equivalent of “$11.7 trillion (inflation-adjusted) on clean energy” between 2005 to 2023. Yet the Statistical Review of World Energy found fossil fuel (coal, oil, natural gas) consumption ballooned 58.6% worldwide between 1995 to 2022.
Despite getting “Inflation Reduction Act” cash, solar still only accounts for a paltry 3.4% of utility-scale electricity generation in the U.S. today. Why? Like onshore and offshore wind, the federal government is gambling on solar despite losing a bet on failed solar company Solyndra.
Net-zero proponents and L.A. Times’s climate correspondent aren’t considering the many downsides to utility-scale solar. Although touted as a cheaper alternative to conventional energy sources, solar panels are expensive – prices topped $52.69/ per megawatt hour (MWh) in Q4 2023 – and are hazardous to recycle. Its base load is unreliable and dependent on sunlight. Not to mention the potential for “land degradation and habitat loss” since “utility-scale Photovoltaic (PV) systems range from 3.5 to 10 acres per megawatt, while estimates for [concentrating solar-thermal power] CSP facilities are between 4 and 16.5 acres per megawatt.”
This government push for solar, much like wind, is facing opposition from rural communities across the country. The Renewable Rejection Database reports nearly 200 utility-scale solar projects have been rejected since 2013.
BLM’s preferred alternative for its updated Western Solar Plan should face the same scrutiny and not be glossed over.