Jun 23, 2009

In a Small Fish, a Large Lesson In Renewable Energy's Obstacles

Conservastore says:

The thousands year battle over what's good for Man and what's good for Nature conflict again. In this case it is Man attempting to do things better than it has in the past and still there is conflict over habitat.... read on

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama wants to boost the nation's production of energy from the sun as part of an effort to double renewable power generation in three years. Among the obstacles to Mr. Obama's agenda: the imperiled Devil's Hole pupfish.

Patrick Putnam is a field manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in southern Nevada. His job is to help the government decide whether the dozens of solar-energy projects that companies have proposed building on federal land in his jurisdiction pose undue environmental risks.

After reviewing some applications for as long as 18 months, Mr. Putnam's office hasn't approved any. He says his office hopes to make decisions on at least three by the end of 2010, but that will be "a monumental task."

Across the West, companies that want to build renewable energy projects are rushing to stake claims on public land, hoping to grab federal subsidies and take advantage of state mandates that require utilities to obtain more power from renewable sources. The surge is straining the Bureau of Land Management, which is more accustomed to processing permit requests from oil and natural gas companies.

The logjam highlights a dilemma for the Obama administration: how to speed the transition to a clean-energy economy -- a shift the president has promised will create millions of jobs -- without trampling the legacy of a previous generation of conservationists, who left in place federal laws and regulations designed to control exploitation of federal lands or protect the habitats of endangered species.

Many of the projects that the government is considering allowing on public land use a system known as concentrating solar power. These systems often require large amounts of water to cool the turbines that are used to convert the sun's heat into electricity. Because water is scarce in many parts of the Southwest, some land managers have questioned their suitability. Most of southern Nevada's valleys, for example, receive only four to six inches of rainfall a year.

Complicating matters, some of the proposed projects are in southwest Nevada's Amargosa Valley, a basin near Las Vegas that is home to the endangered Devil's Hole pupfish. The one-inch-long, iridescent blue creature was the subject of a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that restricted how much water nearby farms could pump out of the ground. The pumping lowered water levels in the pools where the pupfish lived, shrinking the species' numbers.

Mr. Putnam's agency is obligated to worry about whether using water for solar-power systems could lead to more pressure on the pupfish. "This renewable energy push is so new and has come about so quickly, and in fairly large numbers, we're trying to figure out the best process" for vetting projects, Mr. Putnam says.

The Bureau of Land Management, a unit of the Interior Department that manages 256 million acres of federal land, has a backlog of more than 200 proposed solar projects, some of which have been waiting several years.

Many solar developers fear the agency won't approve their projects in time for them to qualify for federal aid. Under the economic-stimulus bill passed by Congress in February, solar companies must begin construction by the end of next year to qualify for grants from the Treasury Department valued at up to $2.5 billion.

Among those waiting on the BLM is Solar Millennium AG. Since October 2007, the Germany-based company has had an application before the bureau to build a $1 billion solar plant in the Amargosa Valley.

"We're a bit nervous," Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium's U.S. subsidiary. To begin construction by December 2010, he says, the BLM would have to complete an environmental review of the project by the third quarter of next year. Mr. Putnam says the BLM can't commit to a firm date for completing a review.

Mr. Obama's Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, has called the BLM's backlog "not acceptable" and announced his department will create four renewable energy coordination offices to accelerate the permitting of renewable energy projects on federal land.

The Interior Department estimates that public lands in the western U.S. could generate 206 gigawatts of wind energy and 2,900 gigawatts of solar energy -- collectively about three times current U.S. electricity generating capacity, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit in Palo Alto, Calif.

But some lawmakers don't want Mr. Salazar to go too fast. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), who controls Mr. Salazar's budget as chairwoman of a Senate appropriations panel, said at a recent hearing that such projects should be approved "in moderation," and expressed concern that some could leave "a huge mark on land that we're trying to conserve."

courtesy of wsj.com 6/16/09

Write to Stephen Power at stephen.power@wsj.com

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