NY Times reports:
SAN FRANCISCO — Proposals for the first large solar power plants ever built on federal lands won final approval on Tuesday from Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reflecting the Obama administration’s resolve to promote renewable energy in the face of Congressional inaction.
Both plants are to rise in the California desert under a fast-track program that dovetails with the state’s own aggressive effort to push development of solar, wind and geothermal power. The far larger one, a 709-megawatt project proposed by Tessera Solar on 6,360 acres in the Imperial Valley, will use “Suncatchers” — reflectors in the shape of radar dishes — to concentrate solar energy and activate a four-cylinder engine to generate electricity.
A 45-megawatt system proposed by Chevron Energy Solutions and featuring arrays of up to 40,500 solar panels will be built on 422 acres of the Lucerne Valley. When complete, the two projects could generate enough energy to power as many as 566,000 homes.
Mr. Salazar is expected to sign off on perhaps five more projects this year; the combined long-term output of all the plants would be four times that of the first two.
“It’s our expectation we will see thousands of megawatts of solar energy sprouting on public lands,” he told reporters.
Now if the Dems can just get the real “Party of No” — also known as the environmental movement — on board:
But even with federal approval, a major hurdle remains for most of the projects: finding excess capacity on transmission lines in the desert, most of which are fully booked or nearly so. At the moment, capacity exists for about 345 megawatts of the 754 megawatts that would eventually be generated by the two newly approved projects.
The rest would require a new line, like San Diego Gas & Electric’s 123-mile proposed Sunrise Powerlink, which has been approved but faces challenges in federal and state courts.
Mr. Salazar emphasized that the Lucerne Valley and Imperial Valley projects had the support of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the Wilderness Society.
Both projects were altered to meet environmental objections: they have a smaller footprint than was originally planned and now include greater commitments to mitigate the impact on species like the endangered desert tortoise. Imperial uses minimal water, a scarce resource in the desert. Still, local desert-protection groups remain opposed, and representatives of large environmental groups expressed support in carefully parsed statements.
“These projects were not selected by us,” said Johanna Wald, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are, as it were, the cards that we were dealt. So we are doing the best that we can by working with the companies, working with the agencies,” to “make them as good as they can be.”
Jim Lyons, who works with renewable energy projects for Defenders of Wildlife, said he supported the Lucerne Valley project. But he said he had some concerns about the impact of the sprawling Imperial Valley solar-reflector project on the landscape, though it has been scaled back from the original 900-megawatt proposal.