US green light for huge solar and battery projects in California deserts

The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has given developer Clearway Energy approval to build the Arica and Victory Pass solar PV projects totaling 465MW combined nameplate capacity with 400MW of battery storage on public desert lands in southeastern California.

BLM also said in the “coming days” it will greenlight Intersect Power’s proposed Oberon 500MW PV array located in the same Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) area of the Mojave and in the Colorado/Sonoran set aside for potential renewables development.

“Investing in clean and reliable renewable energy represents the BLM’s commitment for addressing climate change and supports Congress’ direction in the Energy Act of 2020 to permit 25GW of solar, wind, and geothermal production on public lands no later than 2025,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.

The agency estimates that Arica and Victory Pass will result in $689m in combined infrastructure investment and generate electricity for nearly 132,000 homes.

BLM did not quantify the investment for Oberon which will power for about 142,000 homes. Both Clearway Energy and Intersect Power are based in San Francisco.

The DRECP is focused on 10.8m acres (4.4m ha) of deserts in seven California counties and is a landscape-level plan that streamlines renewable energy development, while conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems, and providing outdoor recreation opportunities.

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To approve these sites for renewable energy development, BLM and its parent, the Department of the Interior, work with tribal governments, local communities, state regulators, industry, and other federal agencies.

Separately, BLM this week issued a a request for interest (RFI) for utility-scale solar development on nearly 90,000 acres of public lands located across the western states of Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico.

The agency said it is now processing 54 utility-scale onshore clean energy projects including 40 solar, six transmission, and four each of wind and geothermal that have potential 27.5GW nameplate capacity. Most of these have been under review for years given slow-moving federal environmental reviews and permitting processes that President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to streamline.

Environmental alarm bells

His efforts to accelerate renewables development, particularly larger solar, on public lands has alarmed some environmental groups and others who assert that it poses a serious threat to desert conservation. They have been able to pressure developers to abandon several projects.

The pace of future development will also depend on whether Congress approves more generous federal tax credits that are stepping down in value. The wind production tax credit (PTC), for example, will expire at the end of this year.

The $2trn Build Back Better Act that included multi-year extensions of existing credits and new ones for battery storage, clean energy manufacturing, and transmission, suffered a serious setback this week when a senator in Biden’s Democratic Party withdrew his support, effectively killing it as written in an evenly-split Senate.

There is about 3GW of operational solar capacity located on federally owned lands versus 77GW of contracted projects under contract on 30 September, according to research group Wood Mackenzie.

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