WASHINGTON - Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service policies discourage the development of solar projects, an executive of Tempe-based First Solar told congressional lawmakers this week.
Frank De Rosa, First Solar's senior vice president of project development, told the House Natural Resources Committee that the permitting process overseen by those agencies needs "common standards, certainty and predictability."
In his testimony, De Rosa said BLM guidelines take too much public land off the table and would undermine projects already far along in development. He said approvals on private land can be even lengthier.
But Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, whose district is a solar power development hotbed, said that what energy companies perceive as obstacles should be seen as protection for public lands.
"Those processes are in place to protect habitats, wildlife, special places," said Grijalva, a member of the committee. "You have to look at all the consequences, intended or otherwise. … If not, you're opening them up to real damage."
Initial guidelines issued by the BLM in March encourage solar development in areas the agency has designated "Solar Energy Zones." The zones represent less than 1 percent of all public lands, and the guidelines would apply to projects under development but not yet approved.
A February map of solar and wind projects that BLM is considering in Arizona lists 32 solar projects, but just three are listed as active projects on the agency website. None is approved yet.
DeRosa and other witnesses at the hearing voiced concerns of businesses failing and the United States falling behind the rest of the world in renewable energy.
But BLM officials said it takes time to ensure environmental conflicts are minimized. Delays aren't meant to hinder business.
"It comes down to resource concerns. How are we addressing impacts on those environments?" said Eddie Arreola, project manager for BLM Arizona's Renewable Energy Coordination Office.
Solar energy companies must submit a habitat conservation plan to Fish and Wildlife if a project might affect an endangered species, on public or private land.
De Rosa told the committee that in his experience, Fish and Wildlife approval takes up to six months on federal lands, but it can take up to five years on private land.
Agency officials said they were not aware of any such substantial delays in the approval process and were not able to comment on what may cause them.
With BLM and Fish and Wildlife hurdles in mind, De Rosa said private land is a little easier to develop right now for solar energy. But he also said good developers evaluate potential sites thoroughly before starting the permitting process.
"There are good developers and there are novices, and unfortunately there's a lot of novices out there right now," De Rosa said. "A project needs to be bulletproof."
This week's hearing was the second on potential roadblocks to renewable-energy development on public lands. BLM Director Bob Abbey and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich testified before the committee May 13.
BY THE NUMBERS
• The Bureau of Land Management identified 23 million acres of U.S. land as having solar-power-generating potential.
• 32 solar applications are currently awaiting BLM Arizona approval.
• Those projects represent a potential 20,198 megawatts of electricity.
• Three Arizona projects are in the last stages of approval; the soonest a project may be approved is October.