Solar power is forging ahead, even if Trump doesn’t talk about it

Source: By By Dino Grandoni, Washington Port • Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Two major solar projects were recently launched on public lands owned by the Interior Department, headed by Ryan Zinke. (Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)

You may have missed the fact that exactly one week ago two major solar power plants, with a combined generating capacity of 179 megawatts, shifted into commercial operation on Bureau of Land Management property in southern Nevada. It’s totally understandable, since the Interior Department didn’t even issue a news release (although its Nevada state director did show up for the formal opening ceremony, and provides a quote for a solar firm’s publicity package).

The launch of Switch Station 1 and Switch Station 2, which deliver electricity to massive data centers in Las Vegas and Reno, highlights the fact that solar power is still expanding in the United States even if President Trump rarely mentions it (despite his talk of a solar-powered border wall). The nation’s solar output rose 47 percent for the first three quarters of 2017, according the Energy Department — and the switch stations mark the first utility-scale energy facility built on BLM land through a streamlined process the Obama administration established in 2014.

Backers of the project — which include First Solar (which built it); EDF Renewable Energy (which runs it); and the Nature Conservancy (which developed the plan to offset its environmental impacts) — say it proves that federal land has tremendous renewable energy potential if the planning is done right. The project lies within the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone, one of 19 zones that Interior identified as ideal for large projects, and siting it there cut the permitting time in half and reduced its cost to 3.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

The span of the two stations stretches across about 1,797 acres. It boasts 1,980,840 solar panels and generates enough energy to meet the demand of 46,000 homes. Switch, a major data center operator, is tapping the energy as part of its plan to be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.

“The administration is completely supportive of ‘all of the above’ energy,” BLM Nevada director John Ruhs said in an interview Sunday, adding that when it comes to large-scale solar projects on BLM land, “It’s just the first of more that are coming, especially for Nevada, and probably California, as well.”

Deploying renewable energy on federal land ranked as a high priority during the previous administration. A year ago, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that the department had approved 60 such utility-scale projects, including 36 solar, 11 wind and 13 geothermal plans.

The GOP tax overhaul bill that could pass as soon as this week keeps key production and investment tax credits that have boosted investment in solar and wind power, which has eased fears within the renewable energy sector.

But these companies still have some concerns about another provision aimed at preventing multinational firms from taking advantage of the U.S. tax code, on the grounds that it might curb investors’ ability to claim a part of production or investment credits. More broadly, the Trump administration’s emphasis on spurring fossil fuel production nationwide has raised questions about the outlook for renewable energy projects on federal land and in federal waters.

The Nature Conservancy helped develop the $6.9 million restoration project that will offset the solar plant’s environmental impact by improving desert tortoise habitat about a 45-minute drive away. John Zablocki, its Mojave Desert program director, said in an interview Saturday that the stations’ launch “shows there’s a better way of doing things.” Now, he added, “It’s a question of whether that will continue. I’m confident it will here in Nevada. Stay tuned.”