BILLINGS, MONT. — U.S. officials announced approval recently of two large-scale solar projects in California and moved to open up public lands in other western states to potential solar power development as part of the Joe Biden administration’s effort to counter climate change by shifting from fossil fuels.
The Interior Department approved the Arica and Victory Pass solar projects on federal land in Riverside County east of Los Angeles. Combined they would generate up to 465 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 132,000 homes, according to San Francisco-based developer Clearway Energy. Approval of a third solar farm planned for 500 megawatts is expected, officials said.
The Interior Department also issued a call to nominate land for development within “solar energy zones” in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico that combined cover about 360 square kilometres.
The invitation to developers comes as officials under Biden promote renewable wind and solar power on public lands and offshore to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. That’s a pronounced change from Republican President Donald Trump’s emphasis on coal mining and oil and gas drilling.
Biden suffered a huge blow to his climate agenda, as opposition from West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin tanked the administration’s centrepiece climate and social services legislation. The administration also has been forced to resume oil and natural gas lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and numerous western states after a federal judge sided with Republican-led states that sued when Biden suspended the sales.
During a recent conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland did not directly address a question about the faltering climate bill and instead pointed to clean energy provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last month.
“We fully intend to meet our clean energy goals,” Haaland said.
She said the Trump administration stalled clean energy by shuttering renewable energy offices at the Bureau of Land Management and undermining long-term agreements, such as a conservation plan tied to solar development in the California desert.
“We are rebuilding that capacity,” Haaland said.
But without the climate bill, tax incentives to build large-scale solar will drop to 10 per cent of a developer’s total capital costs by 2024, instead of rising to 30 per cent, said Xiaojing Sun, head solar researcher at industry consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
Incentives for residential-scale solar would go away completely by 2024, she said.
“It will significantly slow down the growth of solar,” Sun said.
However, she added that streamlining access to federal land could help the industry, as large solar farms on non-federal lands face growing local opposition and cumbersome zoning laws.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees almost a quarter-billion acres of land, primarily in western states. Agency director Tracy-Stone Manning said boosting renewable energy is now one of its top priorities.
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