Federal solar energy roadmap creates opportunities for Arizona

October 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

In a momentous step for U.S. movement towards renewable energy, the Obama administration approved a roadmap on October 12, 2012 for utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in six southwestern states. The move creates strong possibilities for the state of Arizona. Studies are showing that Arizona is likely to be rapidly affected by climate change and that costs of energy production, among other things, will rise as a result. On the other hand, the state is a net energy exporter, and has the best developable solar energy resource in the country. Arizona’s economy could stand to gain significantly if the state government regulates to take advantage of the federal government’s clean energy strategy.

The solar energy roadmap comes to us in the form of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy development, prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) together with the US Department of Energy (DOE). The creation of a PEIS is a long process, and this one has been in the works since its initial public scoping in May 2008. Next steps involve the BLM and the DOE gearing up to manage lands and respond to solar project proposals under the new strategy.

Secretary Salazar, who signed the Record of Decision at an event in Las Vegas, Nevada with Senator Harry Reid, stated “Energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled since the President took office, and with today’s milestone, we are laying a sustainable foundation to keep expanding our nation’s domestic energy resources.”

The Solar PEIS provides a blueprint for:

  • Energy permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah
  • Establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission
  • Incentives for development within the solar energy zones
  • A process through which to consider additional zones and solar projects.

“This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama’s commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs,” Salazar said.

If fully implemented, designated solar projects could produce as much as 23,700 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power approximately 7 million American homes.

But what does it really mean for Arizona? Out of a total of 17 Solar Energy Zones designated on public lands in southwestern states, two are located in Arizona: in Brenda (Lake Havasu/La Paz) and Gillespie (Lower Sonoran/Maricopa). Public lands in these zones total 5,966 acres with potential solar energy production of 663 megawatts. This could be significant for Arizona, as it more than doubles the current in-state production of energy through photovoltaic sources of 450 megawatts.

Arizona’s Corporation Commissioner Paul Newman supported the administration’s renewable energy strategy in an interview on October 13, 2012: “I applaud Secretary Salazar’s Solar Roadmap and the Obama administration’s continuing commitment to clean, renewable energy. Arizona’s outstanding solar resource and transmission access are perfect for large-scale projects. I am hopeful we will catapult past New Jersey in total installed solar capacity in the next two years.”

So far so good: Arizona has a pathway established for solar projects to be approved on public lands, and solar will become more competitive in terms of costs: “We know that countries like Germany have much lower permitting costs, and this initiative will help us to reduce those soft costs,” said Newman.

But entrepreneurs will only propose the creation of solar projects if utility companies are likely to purchase the output. And where’s the incentive for utilities to purchase that solar generated energy? According to Newman, “Projects like this show why Arizona needs to raise its Renewable Energy Standard past the current 15% by 2025 — perhaps to 25% by 2025. Right now, Arizona’s utilities are hitting their targets and don’t need much additional solar for the next 10 years.”

We’re on the right track, but if Arizona is to remain competitive in solar energy production, the state government has more work to do. It’s clear that by building solar energy facilities we almost completely avoid the emission of air pollutants caused by fossil fuel power generating facilities such as sulfur dioxide; nitrogen oxides; carbon monoxide; volatile organic compounds, and greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. We expand our domestic energy production, reducing our reliance on foreign energy sources. Direct and indirect employment is created in regions where solar facility development occurs. And by continuing to develop new solar technologies in Arizona think tanks such as Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability and the ASU Solar Power Lab we stay competitive in the global race for clean technologies. Let’s hope these reasons compel our representatives to act accordingly.

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