U.S. Treasury grant extension, environmental study of proposed solar zones top news from Washington

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President Barack Obama’s signing of the tax legislation passed by the U.S. Congress late last week included a holiday gift for the solar industry in the form of a one-year extension of the Department of Treasury Section 1603 “cash grant in lieu of investment tax credit” program. But the Treasury Grant Program reprieve was not the only news out of Washington with solar industry implications, as the Departments of Energy and Interior made several other moves.

An environmental analysis of proposed “solar energy zones” on public lands, the publication of a DOE study of critical materials, and a proposed proving ground for CSP and CPV technologies were also announced.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu touted a comprehensive environmental analysis that has tabbed proposed “solar energy zones” on public lands in six western states most suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production. 

The detailed study, known as the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, was compiled over the past two years as part of the Obama Administration's efforts to create a framework for developing renewable energy in the right way and in the right places, according to the departments.

The PEIS examines the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on Bureau of Land Management-administered areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. 

Under the study's “preferred alternative,” the BLM would establish a new solar energy program that would standardize and streamline the authorization process and establish mandatory design features for solar energy development on bureau lands, the agencies said.

Under this proposal, the BLM would establish Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) within the estimated 22 million acres of lands available for solar development right-of-way applications. These are areas that have been identified as the most appropriate for development, containing the greatest solar energy potential and fewest environmental and resource conflicts.

The SEZs would offer directed, landscape-scale planning for future solar projects and allow for a more efficient permitting and siting process. 

Of those designated lands, 677,400 acres have been identified as proposed SEZs, with about 214,000 acres anticipated to be useable for “reasonably foreseeable solar energy development.

The public is encouraged to provide comment on the draft plan during the next 90 days. A series of public meetings are scheduled in the six aforementioned Western states and Washington, DC, in February-March 2011.

The Department of Energy also released its Critical Materials Strategy study, which looks at the role of rare earth metals and other materials in the clean energy economy. The report, based on extensive research conducted by the department over the past year, focuses on materials used in four technologies—solar cells, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient lighting. 

The document looks at 14 elements, identifying five rare earth metals (dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium) as well as indium as the most critical of those elements, based on their importance to clean energy technologies and supply risk. 

It also discusses eight policy and program areas that could help reduce vulnerabilities and address critical material needs, including R&D, information-gathering, permitting for domestic production, financial assistance for domestic production and processing, stockpiling, recycling, education, and diplomacy, according to DOE.

The department said it will build on this strategy by working with its national labs, other federal agencies, Congress, and international partners to develop an integrated research agenda on critical materials and strengthen its information-gathering capacity to proactively address supply and demand for products that contain these critical metals. An updated report will be issued by the end of 2011.

Finally, in a move intended to help test and demonstrate innovative, cost-competitive solar energy solutions, Energy Sec. Chu said the department has proposed the allocation of up to $50 million to the Nevada National Security Site to serve as the proving ground for a demonstration program focused on cutting-edge CSP and CPV technologies.

The demonstration projects, which will be 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, according to DOE.

The Nevada site will complement BLM’s 24 “solar energy study areas” on public lands across the Southwest U.S. by providing essential data about the commercial viability of the most advanced solar technologies.

Interior and DOE are collaborating to implement this project, including conducting environmental reviews and coordinating necessary infrastructure planning for the site.

DOE said it expects to announce the funding opportunity early next year; support for the project depends on congressional appropriations.

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