What if they Put on an Auction for Solar Energy Rights on Federal Lands and Nobody Showed Up?
October 26, 2013 - 8:17 am
Heya, heya, heya! Step right up, folks, step right up (pay attention to me, son). Now you can be the first on your block to own the rights to build a whole bunch of unsightly solar panels on federal land. Don’t worry too much about the details, like who you gonna sell that power to and what environmental regulations will be stuffed down your throat. C’Mon down and get in on the excitement of green energy! It’s a real ground floor opportunity. Can’t miss investment.
The plan to auction rights to federal land across the West for solar-power plants got off to a rocky start Thursday when no bidders showed up for the first auction in Colorado.
Uncertainties about the solar market and federal rules probably were major factors in the auction’s failure, industry officials said.
Five companies had filed preliminary applications for the three San Luis Valley parcels, and there were another 27 inquires about the sites, according to Bureau of Land Management officials.
Based on that interest, officials scheduled an auction at the BLM Colorado office in Lakewood for the 3,700 acres of valley land.
“We are going to have to regroup and figure out what didn’t work,” said Maryanne Kurtinaitis, renewable-energy program manager for the BLM in Colorado.
“It is always tough to be the first out of the chute. This is a learning experience,” Kurtinaitis said.
This is the sterling attitude that built the Obamacare website.
The tepid response probably was the result of market uncertainties, said Ken Borngrebe, environmental-permitting manager for Tempe, Ariz.-based solar developer First Solar.
Borngrebe attended the auction as an observer.
The question for any developer looking at a site hinges on access to transmission, the cost of land and the market price for the solar power, Borngrebe said.
The San Luis Valley sites have access to transmission, and the minimum bid prices for the parcels ranged from about $3,350 to $4,280 — which, Borngrebe said, are low prices.
“It may come down to the lack of confidence in the market for solar today,” Borngrebe said.
Another factor may be regulatory uncertainty, said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.
“Financing large solar projects continues to be a challenge for the industry,” Johnson said in an e-mail.
“In this particular case, there’s an added issue which may have prompted developers to take a pass on the Colorado lease sale,” Johnson said. “The ground rules are still very much in question. To date, BLM has yet to finalize any regional mitigation plans. Frankly, it’s not smart business to commit to something until you’ve read the fine print.”
There are several renewable energy projects already operating on federal lands:
Since 2009, the bureau has approved 47 renewable-energy projects on public land, including more than 8,000 megawatts from 25 solar projects, 4,700 megawatts from 10 wind projects, and about 600 megawatts from 12 geothermal projects.
Sounds impressive, yes? Well, actually no — not when you consider that your average nuclear power plant produces about 1000 megawatts an hour. How many acres of windmills would be needed to equal that?
At 25 megawatts to 1500 acres for a nice wind farm of 60 to 70 turbines, you would need 60,000 acres and 2400 to 2800 wind turbines to equal 1,000 megawatts. Of course, these wind turbines only produce that much power when the wind is blowing just right. That only happens about 25% of the time, so you really need four times as many wind turbines and four times as much space to produce, on average, 1,000 megawatts of electricity per hour. So that’s, 240,000 acres and 9,600 to 11,200 turbines. 240,000 acres is 375 square miles.
Maybe we can make a wind farm into a national park. Um, what about the acreage needed for a solar farm to equal the output of a nuclear plant?
At 5 acres of solar panels per megawatt, you need 5,000 acres of solar panels to equal 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Those solar panels only work at peak power levels during the sunny times, so, on average, they only put out about 25% of their rated capacity. That means you really need 20,000 acres of solar panels to generate 1,000 megwatts of electricity per hour, on average. 20,000 acres is 31.25 square miles.
I don’t want to rain on Obama’s green parade (well, I do but let’s try to let him down gently), the prospects in the near term for sufficient power generation from solar or wind turbines that would make it economically viable for a company to make the investment necessary (without a government subsidy) for success are close to zero. Few, if any of these companies would even exist if the feds weren’t handing out free money (or mostly free, in very low interest loans).
That doesn’t mean that innovation in photovoltaic cells won’t eventually lead to profitable ways to generate solar power on a large scale. It just means that it’s an exercise in futility to attempt such projects today.
Until the feds understand this basic concept, we’ll continue to waste taxpayer’s money in funding these boondoggles.