Gov't lays out plans for giant solar farms

Solar photovoltaic panels generate electricity at an Exelon solar power facility in Chicago, Illinois. The 10-megawatt facility located on the city's south side is the largest urban solar installation in the United States.

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Kai Ryssdal: It's not every day that save-the-planet types go head to head with save-the-planet types. Today, though, it was clean power versus habitat protection. The federal government proposed some new rules that're supposed to open up and speed approval of giant solar farms -- so giant they could spread over million and millions of acres of public lands out west.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.


Scott Tong: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar knows the deserts have NIMBY issues, too: historical sites versus habitats versus solar farms. So in a conference call today, he laid out federal zones in six southwestern states with low fuss: lots of sun, not many living things.

Ken Salazar: These are areas in those states which have been determined to have the highest solar potential and the fewest amount of environmental and resource conflicts.

And to limit conflict between stakeholders, he laid out ways to design solar projects the Feds are likely to approve. Basically a cheat sheet for industry.

Nathaniel Bullard: Or more than that, it's basically the rules of the game.

Nathaniel Bullard is an analyst with Bloomberg Clean Energy Finance.

Bullard: You've got the playbook. If you play along, you're likely to be right. And if you don't play along, you do so at your peril. This is very positive for the development of any kind of infrastructure.

He figures this shaves off 5 to 10 percent of a project's cost -- less spent on lawyers and on borrowing.

But Alex Daue at the Wilderness Society has read the nitty-gritty. He says the plan identifies areas conducive to solar plants, but doesn't force companies to build there. They can still apply elsewhere, including more fragile habitats.

Alex Daue: This type of scattershot approach that has caused huge problems in the oil and gas development program does not need to be way we approach clean solar energy on our public lands.

Speaking of fossil fuels, regulators have greenlighted 78,000 projects on federal land in the last two decades. Mega solar farms? Seven.

In Washington, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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