Solar Thermal On Private Land: Pros and Cons

Getting approval to build onBLM land has proven to be a huge headache, so private parcels shouldbecome more attractive. Or will they?


 Solar Thermal On Private Land: Pros and Cons

Is public land that much more attractive for solar-thermal power projects?

It would seem so, judging by the more than 200 applications that thefederal Bureau of Land Management has received in recent years to covermillions of desert land in the southwest with solar fields (see The Rush for Gigawatts in the Desert Explodes).

But working through the lengthy permitting process and theunderstaffed BLM offices has been akin to watching a desert tortoisecross the road. Federal officials also have expressed concerns that therush to lock up choice lots could encourage speculators to file forpermits and then sell them.

The applications are not assets that can be traded or sold becausethey don’t guarantee rights to lease the land – the BLM could deny theapplications. But buying a company that has pending applications andthen moving forward with the permitting process is legal, said PeterWeiner, a partner at law firm Paul Hastings Janosky & Walker, whichrepresents renewable energy companies.

Building on private land, on the other hand, could be a simplerprocess and create less heartburn. That’s particularly the case if theland has already been spoiled by activities such as farming. Thoseproperties would likely face fewer questions about endangered speciesand other natural resource protection.

"Don’t forget about the private land. Maybe it’s more expensive, butyou can get a hold of private land sooner than BLM land," said ReeseTisdale, research director of Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge,Mass., at the Concentrating Solar Thermal Power 2009 in San Francisco earlier this month.

Some private landowners think so, too. One of them, Vermaland in Phoenix, even issued a press release recently to advertise its auction of 1,938 acres in Arizona. Vermaland said the land is good for 388 megawatts of solar electricity generation (see A Solar Land Auction in Arizona).

Solar thermal power developers certainly have been hunting for good private properties.

BrightSource Energy, which plans to build 2.6 gigawatts of solarpower plants to deliver electricity to the Pacific Gas and Electric andSouthern California Edison, recently inked an agreement to develop onprivate land in Nevada (see BrightSource Locks Up Nevada Land for Solar Thermal Power).

The Oakland, Calif.-based company also has pending applications for BLM land in California’s Mojave Desert (see video interview with BrightSource’s CEO John Woolard).

Solar thermal power companies will tell you that finding suitableprivate land isn’t easy. For one thing, the companies are seekinghundreds of acres that are preferably flat and close to a water source(for cooling) and transmission substations.

A solar thermal power plant uses a field of mirrors to concentratethe sunlight for heating up water or oil. The process generates steam,which is then used to drive turbines for producing electricity.Utilities have a keen interest in this kind of solar power plantbecause it adds energy storage to the facility. The power plant wouldheat up molten salt during the day and use it to produce steam at night.

The government owns large swaths of land in the west. Aside from theBLM land, which could be open up for mining, drilling, grazing andother resource mining (in addition to recreation), there are manynational parks, national forests and state parks. Then thereresidential communities.

"When you look for private land, what you cannot find are largeacreages in one piece, especially when you are looking around theMojave and Palm Springs," Weiner said. "They are sold off in 1-, 2- and5-acre parcels."

Some of the property owners also jack up the selling prices when power project developers come calling.

"I’ve heard about land costing $15,000 per acre, five times morethan two or three years before," said Rainer Aringhoff, president ofSolar Millennium LLC, the U.S. operation of the Germany company that isdeveloping a 250-megawatt power plant in Nevada.

Developing on private land also doesn’t allow developers to sidestepwhat could be lengthy and contentious permitting process, Aringhoffadded. For example, a developer would still need approval from theCalifornia Energy Commission if he wants to develop a solar farm on aprivate parcel in the state.

If a developer gets a federal loan guarantee to fund a project, hewould have to go through the federal environmental review process evenif the project is set on private land, Weiner said.

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