Feds fail to use land for
Sep 28, 2010 - Jason Dearen - Associated
Not a light bulb's worth of solar electricity
has been produced on the millions of acres
(hectares) of public desert set aside for it.
Not one project to build glimmering solar farms
has even broken ground.
Instead, five years after federal land managers
opened up stretches of the Southwest to developers,
vast tracts still sit idle.
An Associated Press examination of U.S. Bureau
of Land Management records and interviews with
agency officials shows that the BLM operated
a first-come, first-served leasing system that
quickly overwhelmed its small staff and enabled
companies, regardless of solar industry experience,
to squat on land without any real plans to
At a time when the U.S. drills ever deeper
for oil off its shores even as it tries to
diversify its energy supply, the federal government
has, so far, failed to use the land it already
has - some of the world's best for solar -
to produce renewable electricity.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Nevada,
where a Goldman Sachs & Co. subsidiary
with no solar background has claims with the
BLM on nearly half the land for which applications
have been filed, but no firm plan for any of
The Obama administration says it is expediting
the most promising projects, with some approvals
expected as soon as September. And yet, it
will be years before the companies begin sending
electricity to the Southwest's sprawling, energy-hungry
"Clearly we spent a lot of time and effort
on oil and gas, but those priorities have changed," Ray
Brady, BLM's head of energy policy in Washington,
told the AP.
Congress in 2005 gave the Interior Department
a deadline: approve 10,000 megawatts, or about
five million homes' worth during peak hours,
of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.
Reaching that goal was left to the BLM, which
oversees federal land and knows oil, gas and
mining leases but is new to solar.
The Bush administration, however, kept BLM's
focus on oil. BLM's database of solar applications
shows many languished for years while the agency
approved more than 73,000 oil and gas leases
in the last five years. BLM has yet to give
final approval to one solar lease.
BLM's solar leasing system ended up allowing
developers to lay claim to prime sites - many
located in the deserts that span California,
Nevada and Arizona. All developers had to do
was fill out an application, pay a fee and
file development plans.
But many were so vague that it was difficult
for BLM to separate the serious projects from
the speculative ones.
"People were making (solar) applications
on federal lands not knowing what kind of technology
to propose and ... how to develop the land," Brady
In the Southern California desert near Palm
Springs, for example, San Diego-based LightSource
Renewables filed an application in August 2008
for 2,500 acres, BLM records show. The small,
two-person development firm knew enough to
recognize the land's worth - it was close to
transmission lines - but had no previous experience
with such projects.
Co-founder Paul Whitworth said it is now focusing
on getting private land, and is not pursuing
plans for its BLM site. The agency, however,
still considers the application active, meaning
other interested firms cannot access it.
"We don't know what technology will win
or lose, and certain sites cater to certain
technologies, but a good site is a good site," Whitworth
said when asked why they filed their application.
The firm has never filed a development plan,
While dozens of smaller firms like Lightsource
joined in the rush, BLM records show two Goldman
subsidiaries filed 52 of the 354 applications
throughout the region, more than any other
"Those 52 applications are an example
of the problem of clogging up the system," said
V. John White, executive director the Sacramento,
California-based Center for Energy Efficiency
and Renewable Technologies, a clean-energy
advocacy group, in an e-mail. The system has
limited access by experienced solar developers
to the best sites.
"Some of these lease applications tied
up more land than would be needed for a real
project," he said.
For example, records show Goldman-owned Cogentrix
Solar Services, LLC, the subsidiary with no
previous solar experience, has a pending application
for 13,440 acres (5,439 hectares) in Nevada
for a 1,400-megawatt solar plant. Another claim
on land nearby asks for 22,400 acres (9,065
hectares) for the exact, same-sized plant.
BLM records show other companies proposing
the same type of solar plants were asking for
6,000-7,000 acres (2,428-2,832 hectares).
Over the years, BLM rejected applications
or companies withdrew them, bringing the total
active applications to 123.
Some of Goldman's California applications
were withdrawn after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein
proposed last year that part of the Mojave
Desert where some of the projects were proposed
be declared a national monument. Now Goldman
holds 10 of the 123, including eight that cover
nearly half the land proposed for solar in
An AP review of BLM's applications database
found Cogentrix has staked more development
claims in the Southwestern deserts than any
other company. In Nevada alone, Cogentrix has
applied for exclusive development rights on
nearly as much federal land as all other companies
combined. Its active lease applications cover
about 120,000 acres (48,563 hectares) - the
equivalent of more than eight Manhattans.
"Goldman Sachs was one of the first applicants
to dot the map with potential projects, and
since then they haven't moved on any of them," said
Gregory Helseth, the BLM's new renewable energy
project manager in southern Nevada. "You
can't hold the land forever. You can't be a
prospector and hope somebody down the road
wants to buy."
A Goldman representative defended the firm's
solar investments, saying the Wall Street titan
has since gained experience through its 2009
purchase of an aged solar facility in San Bernardino,
California, that it was moving forward in good
faith and was not blocking anyone. The company
also announced last month it had reached a
deal to build a small, 250-acre (101-hectare)
project in Colorado on private land.
"While we continue to pursue development
of projects utilizing public lands in the Southwest,
we have not held land reservations if they
are determined not to be viable for future
solar development," company spokesman
Ed Canaday said in an e-mail.
The Obama Administration has identified 14
promising "fast-track" projects targeted
for approval by year's end so they can qualify
for stimulus funding. None of Goldman's claims
are among them.
When completed, these facilities could generate
6,000 megawatts, enough electricity for several
million homes during peak hours. There is a
ready market for big plants, with California's
strict climate change laws creating a huge
demand among utilities for solar power.
Companies that hold BLM solar development
applications are prohibited from selling them,
but the companies themselves can be sold along
with the potentially lucrative applications.
Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar, an industry
leader and a maker of solar panels, bought
two smaller companies, including the companies'
land rights and power agreements with utility
companies. First Solar paid about $400 million
for OptiSolar and $285 million for NextLight.
Analysts say the sale value of both companies
likely was increased because they held BLM
solar development applications.
First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer said
the acquisitions were valued on the companies'
signed agreements with utilities not on their
BLM land positions.
In September, at least two of the "fast-track" projects
- by Oakland, California-based Brightsource
Energy and by First Solar-owned Nextlight -
are expected to get the first solar permits
issued by BLM. Bringing plants online however
will likely take years.
These fast-tracked sites are located on either
side of the dormant Goldman lease near Roach
Dry Lake, located about 35 miles (56 kilometers)
south of Las Vegas, and will utilize the same
Southern California Edison transmission lines
that pass over Goldman's site.
Goldman spokesman Canaday said the company
is still trying to work out a deal with a utility.
And BLM's Helseth said he still is seeking
final plans from Goldman and Cogentrix. He
said the agency's main problem was that there
were too few employees available to work on