You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

There Goes The Sun

What abysmal timing for the sun-starved moles deep in the Bureau of Land Management--no doubt acting in cahoots with the intransigent bureaucrats of the EPA--to flex their muscle when it comes to solar power:

Faced with a surge in the number of proposed solar power plants, the federal government has placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact, which is expected to take about two years.

The Bureau of Land Management says an extensive environmental study is needed to determine how large solar plants might affect millions of acres it oversees in six Western states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

But the decision to freeze new solar proposals temporarily, reached late last month, has caused widespread concern in the alternative-energy industry, as fledgling solar companies must wait to see if they can realize their hopes of harnessing power from swaths of sun-baked public land, just as the demand for viable alternative energy is accelerating.

This illogical two-year moratorium is terrible news, and underscores how environmental progress under the Bush administration has not been a story of benign neglect but rather significant and widespread destruction. Firstly, the request to study the "environmental impact" of solar panels is a complete sham argument. No one in the administration seems to be concerned about "the impact of construction and transmission lines on native vegetation and wildlife" when it comes to the enormous border fence spanning the sunniest parts of the country. And whilst cloudy Germany (no contest in a competition with Arizona, Nevada or California) has a 20-year portfolio standard for solar, and Spain has a similarly inviting plan for wind energy that has attracted giant corporations like Gamesa, the US is still foot-dragging on the renewal of tax credits for wind and solar power that will definitively propel or depress the future growth of these industries. How telling that one of these two enlightened nations will claim the Euro 2008 title, while stateside, our inefficient year-by-year renewal model is the legislative equivalent of stringing along that girlfriend you just can't dump.

I digress. But at the Google/Brookings conference on plug in electric hybrid cars I attended earlier this month, there was a jaunty, "to-the-moon" mentality among those convened to dance on the cutting edge of clean technology. How nice to see the right-on John Podesta, Assistant Secretary for Energy Andy Karsner, Jon Wellinghof of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Sue Tierney hashing out the specifics of energy abuse and green infrastructure development. I thralled to hear Rep. Jay Inslee (coauthor of the excellent Apollo's Fire) discuss how the scientific debate is over, clean technology is increasingly commercialized, and in 2009 "gargantuan leaps" are coming. But it was Tom Friedman--of all people--who went Debbie Downer by mentioning the trickling progress on wind and solar subsidies. He's absolutely right. Without dependable support on the Hill for solar and wind, creating a national electrical grid for cars (or even the state by state grids preferred by some policymakers) is obviously a pipe dream.

Of course, the most significant impact of this horrendous move is in terms of investment--now arguably the most important frame for environmental action. When venture capitalists scan the horizon for technologies likely to arrive at scale and with respectable returns, a big government finger directed toward solar makes the needed investment ever more unlikely.

Update: Looking over my notes from the Brookings conference, I see Inslee referred to some initiative (too muddled to read) as "solar energy porn" because "I'm so excited about it." Great guy.

--Dayo Olopade

(Photo: Mirrors point to the sky at a solar energy development centre in Rotem industrial park near the southern Israeli town of Dimona. The centre, in the Negev desert, consists of more than 1,600 full-size glass mirrors. Courtesy Getty Images)