Obama goes long renewable energy

December 1, 2012

President Obama is putting some wind in the sails of the transformation of solar energy to an industrial scale. Lost in the pre-election frenzy in July was this announcement:

The Obama administration announced a plan on Tuesday to open public land in six southwestern states to speed up the development of solar energy, while blocking projects in areas deemed environmentally sensitive.

The plan allows for 17 zones covering about 285,000 acres of federal land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The administration wants to fast track development of large solar power generation plants that would provide electricity to homes and businesses through power grids.

The new solar energy zones are shown in the graphic above. This portion of America is a solar goldmine with enormous potential for large-scale electricity generation. Reuters estimates how big the potential is (emphasis mine):

The government expects development of about 23,700 megawatts of solar power from the areas where projects are permitted, enough to power about 7 million homes.

According to the announcement, the federal lands are near electrical grids that don’t pose environmental risks. Utility-scale solar projects will be fast tracked in these zones. The project, which will be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, includes 19 million more acres of federal land that will made available for solar projects without permit fast-tracking.

Obama’s blast of support follows rapid expansion over the last few years of the solar industry. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reports on the solar revolution:

Installations of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems have been growing at a rapid pace in recent years. In 2011, approximately 21,000 megawatts (MW) of grid-connected PV were installed globally, up from roughly 17,000 MW in 2010, and 8,000 MW in 2009.

Globally, the U.S. is not top dog in solar energy:

With roughly 1,850 MW of grid-connected PV capacity added in 2011, the United States was the world’s fourth largest PV market in that year, behind Germany, Italy, and China.

So what are the drivers for the U.S. to increase photovoltaic energy production?

The market for PV in the United States is, to a significant extent, driven by national, state, and local government incentives, including up-front cash rebates, production-based incentives, renewables portfolio standards, and federal and state tax benefits.  These programs are, in part, motivated by the popular appeal of solar energy, and by the positive attributes of PV – modest environmental impacts, avoidance of fuel price risks, coincidence with peak electrical demand, and the ability to deploy PV at the point of use.

But we are still taking baby steps:

Despite the significant year-on-year growth, however, the share of global and U.S. electricity supply met with PV remains relatively small.

Check out the states that lead the solar energy parade with utility scale projects:


Most importantly, the installed costs of solar energy systems are declining:

This Obama initiative is long overdue, especially in light of the efforts that the federal government makes for oil, gas and coal production. The Department of the Interior’s Economic Contributions Fiscal Year 2011 report says that solar energy is about 1% of the economic activity of fossil fuels on federal lands:

Oil, gas and coal production were the biggest economic drivers for Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, generating an estimated economic contribution of $119.6 billion last year and supporting 558,976 jobs, according to the report. Wind energy on federal lands added $100 million in economic activity, along with 688 jobs. On-site solar construction yielded $1.4 billion in economic activity to go with 6,747 jobs.

Renewable energy is a growing part of America’s energy mix, and the president’s program is a big leap forward. The road to energy independence and less environmental damage leads straight through the sun.

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