The Obama administration today said accelerated permitting and financial incentives have helped fuel a booming interest in developing wind, solar and geothermal power on public lands but warned that future development will depend on a strong commitment from Congress.
At a renewable energy forum hosted by the Interior Department, Secretary Ken Salazar joined officials of major solar companies to tout the success of a Treasury Department grant program and loan guarantees from the Energy Department in spurring 12 renewable energy and transmission projects on public lands in 2010.
But Salazar warned lawmakers that investors will need dependable incentives and regulations to continue building. The Treasury grants were extended by Congress in December but expire at the end of the year.
"The package signed into law by President Obama in December is helping unlock the potential of solar, wind and geothermal and other projects," Salazar said, flanked by the secretaries of energy and agriculture and the officials of six solar companies. "In particular, the 1603 renewable energy grant program under the Recovery Act has been an essential tool in deploying renewable energy resources in the U.S. over the past two years."
Equally important, Salazar said, is Congress' passage of an 80 percent clean energy standard as outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union address last month.
"It's very difficult for anybody to make a long-term plan when you essentially have a policy framework that's at risk and changes from day to day," Salazar said. "If we can get there with this Congress, we can achieve the clean energy future."
Salazar was joined by officials from of Abengoa Solar, BrightSource Energy Inc., First Solar, SolarReserve, Solar Trust of America LLC, and SunPower Corp., all of which benefitted from the Treasury grant program and have unlocked billions of dollars in capital, Interior said.
Joshua Bar-Lev, vice president of regulatory affairs for BrightSource, said that within five years his company could invest up to $14 billion in developing solar projects in Southern California's sun-baked terrain. The company's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station was permitted by Interior last year and is positioned to secure funding through Treasury and $1.37 billion in DOE loan guarantees.
"None of this would be possible without the administration's commitment both in the form of loan guarantees, the grant program, permitting that is deliberate, careful and on time and the development of transmission in this country that is so badly needed," Bar-Lev said.
Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, said the Treasury and DOE assistance is helping his firm roll out a molten salt, solar power tower technology that will allow solar farms to store power to be deployed when the sun is not shining.
"The administration's support in extending the 1603 Treasury grant as well as the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program are critical programs that are crucial to these projects successfully proceeding," Smith said.
Enviro groups urge caution
But while swift permitting is crucial for keeping renewable development viable, conservation groups today said Interior must be mindful of protecting sensitive landscapes and cultural resources when siting projects.
More than a dozen environmental groups in a letter today to Obama said they support an early and robust approach to planning, siting, designing, managing and monitoring renewable energy generation and transmission.
"We believe that this approach, if properly implemented, will provide added certainty for project developers, investors, conservationists and other stakeholders by accelerating clean energy development and avoiding, minimizing, and mitigating environmental impacts that can result in conflicts and increase project costs and time delays," said the groups, which included the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society and Sierra Club.
The groups also backed proposals in Congress last year to collect revenue from renewable projects on public lands in a way that approximates private lands and reinvests those funds in conservation.
Some environmental groups are also urging Interior to narrow is programmatic review of solar energy on public lands to sun-drenched zones in the Southwest instead of its proposal to allow development on 22 million acres.
Click here to read the letter.