Thousands of Miles of Federal Desert Designated for Solar Go Unused

September 1 – Anyone who has driven through the U.S. southwest is familiar with the endless miles of scorching hot desert. Many of these travelers have likely wondered, while speeding along one of the dozens of highways in the region, “why don’t we just put up miles and miles of solar panels here and take a big bite out of our energy problems?”

The answer to this question is as frustrating as it is unsurprising.

In 2005, Congress gave the Interior Department an order– grant permits for 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on federal public lands by 2015. The responsibility to execute this mandate was given to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages federal lands and has extensive experience in granting oil, gas and mining leases.

However, the process by which the BLM allowed private companies to lay claim to the public lands was rife with incompetence and inefficiency. Instead of weeding out bidders that were unlikely to build solar plants in the near future, the BLM opened the process to anyone who could fill out an application, pay a fee and file development plans.

This poorly conceived free-for-all allowed companies with little or no solar project experience to scoop up prime land. According to the AP, one of the most egregious examples of this land grab is seen by two subsidiaries of Goldman Sachs & Co., which accounted for 52 of the 354 applications. Specifically, one Goldman subsidiary, Cogentrix Solar Services, LLC, holds the rights to nearly half the federal land designated for solar development in Nevada.

Although companies that hold these BLM solar claims are not allowed to sell the claims, the companies themselves can be sold, along with their potentially lucrative solar claims.

Interestingly, while the process for dolling out solar claims was slow and inefficient, the agency was incredibly effective at approving leases for oil and gas exploration. During the Bush Administration, while solar applications sat idle for years, the BLM approved over 73,000 oil and gas leases in the last five years of Bush’s term. To date, the BLM has still not given final approval to a single solar lease, many of which are claimed by companies not even qualified to build a solar plant in the first place.

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