U.S. Sets Up Solar Demonstration Zone in Nevada

To develop cost-competitive solar technologies, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) intends to fund up to $50 million in testing and demonstration initiatives. The program will be a critical link between DOE’s advanced technology development programs and full-scale commercialization efforts.

The Nevada National Security Site will provide a “solar demonstration zone” that will serve as a proving ground for cutting-edge solar technologies, such as concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) and concentrating photovoltaic (PV) energy.

DOE expects to announce the Funding Opportunity Announcement early this year. Potential technology applications include: CSP systems that use mirrors to reflect and concentrate sunlight on a heat absorbing fluid, convert it to steam, and ultimately generate electricity; and concentrated PV power that uses lenses to concentrate sunlight to improve the efficiency of conventional photovoltaics.

The demonstration projects that are part of the Solar Demonstration Zone will be deployed at a large enough scale to provide useful operating and economic data for the eventual deployment of solar energy projects at utility-scale, which are typically grid-connected projects larger than 20 megawatts.

The solar demonstration zone will complement the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Land Management’s 24 Solar Energy Study Areas on public lands across the Southwest by providing essential data about the commercial viability of the most advanced solar technologies.

As part of DOE and the DOI’s continuing collaboration, the departments are working together to implement this project, including conducting environmental reviews and coordinating necessary infrastructure planning for the site.  Responses will be due by March 30, 2011.

Late last year, DOE and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a comprehensive environmental analysis that identifies proposed “solar energy zones” on public lands in six Western states. Lands that are in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah that are most suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production are the focus of the joint announcement that was made on December 16.

A 90-day period for public comment on a detailed study, known as the draft Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), began December 17 with the publication of a notice of availability.

Under the study’s preferred alternative, DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would establish a new Solar Energy Program that would standardize and streamline the authorization process and would establish mandatory design features for solar energy development on BLM lands.

The BLM would establish “solar energy zones” within the lands available for solar development right-of-way applications. These have been identified as most appropriate for development, containing the highest solar energy potential and fewest environmental and resource conflicts. The solar energy zones would provide directed, landscape-scale planning for future solar projects and would allow for a more efficient permitting and siting process.

The initiative stems from a June 2009 DOI announcement that tracts of BLM land in the six Western states, known as solar energy study areas, would be fully evaluated for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production.

Much of the BLM-managed 120 million acres of public land in the six states would be excluded from solar energy production, leaving about 22 million acres available for right-of-way applications under the preferred alternative. That includes some 677,400 acres identified as proposed solar energy zones.

However, reasonably foreseeable solar energy development is anticipated on only about 214,000 acres of the suitable and appropriate BLM lands. Even as it completes the PEIS, the BLM continues to process existing solar energy applications. The BLM’s current solar energy caseload includes 104 active solar applications covering 1 million acres that developers estimate could have a total capacity of 60,000 megawatts.