Europe’s Way of Encouraging Solar Power Arrives in the U.S.

Solar cells adorn the roofs of many homes and warehouses across Germany, while the bright white blades of wind turbines are a frequent sight against the sky in Spain.

Homes with solar panels in Germany, where homeowners are paid to produce green energy.

If one day these machines become as common on the plains and rooftops of the United States as they are abroad, it may be because the financing technique that gave Europe an early lead in renewable energy is starting to cross the Atlantic.

Put simply, the idea is to pay homeowners and businesses top dollar for producing green energy. In Germany, for example, a homeowner with a rooftop solar system may be paid four times more to produce electricity than the rate paid to a coal-fired power plant.

This month Gainesville, Fla., became the first city in the United States to introduce higher payments for solar power, which is otherwise too expensive for many families or businesses to install. City leaders, who control their electric utility, unanimously approved the policy after studying Germany’s solar-power expansion.

Hawaii, where sky-high prices for electricity have stirred interest in alternative forms of power like solar, hopes to have a similar policy in place before the end of the year. The mayor of Los Angeles wants to introduce higher payouts for solar power. California is considering a stronger policy as well, and bills have also been introduced in other states, including Washington and Oregon.

“I’m seeing it with my own eyes — it’s really having a good effect on our local economy, particularly in these hard times,” said Edward J. Regan, the assistant general manager for strategic planning at Gainesville Regional Utilities in Florida. He said he had gotten calls from other cities and states since announcing the policy.

The new payment method is referred to as a “feed-in tariff” in Europe. It is, in essence, a mandate by the government telling a utility to pay above-market rates for green electricity.

It shifts the burden of subsidizing green energy from taxpayers, as is common in the United States, to electricity ratepayers. And the technique includes assurances that a utility will pay the high rates for a long period, often 15 to 25 years.

The surge of interest in the payment system is a recognition that despite generous state and federal incentives, the United States still lags far behind Europe in solar power. Germany, where feed-in tariffs have been in place since 1991, has about five times as many photovoltaic panels installed as the United States, though they still account for only 0.5 percent of electricity in that country.

In the United States, said Wilson Rickerson, a Boston energy consultant, “a lot of people simultaneously reached the conclusion — who’s moving fastest internationally? And that’s definitely been Germany and Spain.”

In Gainesville, the new policy has already sparked a rush to put up panels. John Stanton, a retired civil servant living there with his wife, put 24 solar panels on his roof in late January, as city leaders sped the policy toward approval. Gainesville’s municipal utility will pay Mr. Stanton and other homeowners and businesses who generate solar power more than twice the standard electricity rate, guaranteeing that rate for 20 years.

“It was the thing that sort of put us over the top,” said Mr. Stanton, who gained an appreciation of European energy policies after living in Italy for more than a decade.

Mr. Regan said that homeowners with panels received a payment under the new policy that works out to more than a 25 percent premium over the city’s other incentives, which include rebates and a more modest rate payment.

Wind power and other sources of renewable energy are generally included in the European payment systems, but solar — as one of the costliest renewables — has benefited the most. Payment rates in Europe for wind are substantially lower than for solar, according to Christian Kjaer, chief executive of the European Wind Energy Association.

In the United States, solar panels remain prohibitively expensive — a big reason that the panels account for far less than 1 percent of electricity generation. Generating power from the sun using rooftop panels can cost four times as much as coal, the largest and cheapest source of electricity in this country.

If a utility commits to paying a higher rate for renewable power over a period of years, it can offer those with solar panels or wind turbines a steady return that helps defray the initial cost of the equipment. “If you put your money in, you know you’re going to get it back,” Mr. Rickerson said, referring to Germany.

But requiring utilities to pay extra for green power has a direct impact on ratepayers. Homeowners’ electricity bills will rise 74 cents a month in Gainesville, or about half a percentage point of the average homeowner’s monthly bill.

“Seventy cents — what’s that? A Coke?” said Mr. Regan, of the Gainesville utility.

Opponents of feed-in tariffs like Marcel Hawiger, a staff attorney for the Utility Reform Network in California, say that the policy would hit poor people the hardest by raising their electricity rates because a relatively high percentage of their income goes to pay utility bills.

“Why should we use regressive taxation to support the most expensive form of renewable energy?” Mr. Hawiger asked.

The solar programs have sometimes proved so popular that costs can spiral out of control. Last fall, blockbuster growth forced Spain to cap the number of solar installations it would subsidize. Ontario, which has had a feed-in tariff since 2006, also suspended its program last year after being oversubscribed, but wants to restart the policy.

Even in Gainesville, homeowners wanting to put solar panels on their roof are now out of luck: a few days after introducing the policy, the city reached its cap on solar payments for this year and next. Meanwhile, a handful of utilities around the country are already doing similar things voluntarily, albeit on a tiny scale.

For now, at least, solar-power advocates do not believe they have the votes in Congress to adopt a national feed-in tariff system like the ones in Germany and Spain. They are putting their hopes, instead, on proposals in Congress to mandate that a certain percentage of electricity comes from renewables.

The New York Times

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A Smaller Route to Solar Success

At Aora's existing plant in Almería, Spain, mirrors focus the sun’s energy on a modest tower where the heat is captured and used to spin a turbine. After the sun goes down, a conventional fuel can be used instead.
AoraAt Aora’s plant in Almería, Spain, mirrors focus the sun’s energy on a modest tower where the heat is captured and used to spin a turbine. In the evening, a fuel can be used.

There are at least a dozen major ways to turn sunlight into electricity, but one of the more interesting is using a field of mirrors to focus the sun’s energy on a “power tower” where the heat is captured and used later to spin a turbine and turn a generator. As I have previously written, two companies are now planning to build such systems in the desert Southwest with hardware that will store the heat for a rainy day or for the period right after sunset when power demand is still high.

But now comes a new player with a different concept: build the tower, but on a smaller, simpler scale, and skip the storage in favor of using using biogas or natural gas to power the system after dark.

The new player, Aora, has two systems running, one on a kibbutz in southern Israel and the other in Almería, Spain. It hopes to announce soon that it will be building several more in Arizona.

The basic unit planned there is an array of about 50 mirrors focused on a tower that rises 115 feet. It produces 100 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to run about 100 window air conditioners.

The competition is hundreds of times larger. The two companies already in business in this field in the United States are BrightSource, which also has Israeli roots, and SolarReserve. Their towers are hundreds of feet high and surrounded by thousands of mirrors, and they produce power at the level of tens or hundreds of megawatts. (A megawatt is approximately the level of energy used by a Super Wal-Mart, and a big coal plant generates about 600 megawatts.)

For example, BrightSource has a power plant in Coalinga, Calif., that produces 13 megawatts of electricity with a 327-foot tower. It is building another project with 500-foot towers and has plans for another with 700-foot towers. These would be surrounded by thousands of heliostats, or devices equipped with mirrors that redirect the sun.

The giant towers heat water into steam or heat molten salt that will be used to boil steam; the steam flows through a turbine that converts the heat energy to rotational movement that drives a generator. Plants running on coal or nuclear energy do the same thing with the steam they make.

Aora, on the other hand, heats ordinary air that then expands and spins a gas turbine that resembles a jet engine. During periods when there is no sun, the system injects a hydrocarbon fuel, which can be ordinary natural gas, methane from a landfill, propane or a variety of other substances to expand the gas and spin the turbine.

One advantage of using air instead of steam is that the air can simply be vented, whereas the steam has to be converted back to water for reuse. “Where you have the best sunlight, you have the least amount of water’’ available locally, Aora’s chief executive, Zev Rosenzweig, noted. His design does require water for washing the mirrors, however, and if the outdoor air temperature is high, it needs some water to cool the air and make it more dense before it can be compressed by heat to drive the turbine.

For solar, the big issue is the early evening: “Solar bows out at 5 p.m., Mr. Rosenzweig noted. But that’s when peak demand begins — people come home, turn on the air conditioner full blast, put dinner in the oven or microwave and turn on television sets in the ensuing hours, he said. Rather than building a system with storage, which requires an oversize gathering system to take in more sun than is required for instant generation, Aora decided that it was easier to equip its system to burn natural gas, using most of the original hardware.

While the system has potential for further growth, one question is what to do with the hot air that is expelled from the turbine. There is not quite enough of it to boil water to make steam for electricity, but it could have a variety of uses, including driving an air-conditioning system. In that sense, a small modular design has advantages over a mega-project. In the California desert, there is a market for electricity, which can be easily shipped, but there is not much market for waste heat.

The New York Times

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US to impose tariff on Chinese solar panels in victory for domestic makers

American solar panel manufactuers welcome Obama administration decision, saying it exposes unfair trade practices

Solar panels

Chinese companies have acknowledged receiving cheap loans and other government support. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

The Obama administration, which regularly champions America’s clean energy industry, has delivered modest support for home-grown solar panel makers complaining of unfair competition from China

In a much-anticipated decision, the commerce department on Tuesday said it would impose tariffs of 2.9% to 4.73% on Chinese-made solar panels, after finding the Beijing government was providing illegal subsidies to manufacturers.

The commerce department could impose heavier penalties in May, when it is due to decide whether China is dumping solar panels at prices below their actual cost.

But Tuesday’s move did not suggest the Obama adminstration is willing to risk a trade war with China in support of struggling solar panel manufacturers.

Domestic solar panel makers, who had requested the tariffs, welcomed the decision, saying it had helped expose unfair Chinese trade practices.

“Today’s announcement affirms what US manufacturers have long known: Chinese manufacturers have received unfair and WTO-illegal subsidies,” Steve Ostrenga, an executive who is a member of the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing, said in a statement. “We look forward to addressing all of China’s unfair trade practices in the solar industry.”

Solar installation companies, whose business relies on Chinese-made panels, expressed relief that the small tariffs would not drive up costs.

“This is a huge victory for the US solar industry and our 100,000 employees,” said Jigar Shah, president of the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy. “Given all our expectations, this is really good news.”

But there were some suggestions that the Obama administration was sending a mixed message on its support for the renewable energy industry.

Some industry executives had hoped for a greater show of support from the administration – even at the risk of causing a trade rift with China.

Obama, in the White House and on the campaign trail, has regularly held up the renewable energy industry as an example of American innovation – noting that solar power was invented at Bell Labs. But China has now taken the lead, with more than 700 manufacturers of solar panels.

A few of those Chinese companies have acknowledged receiving cheap loans and other government support.

But low-cost solar panels are also helping some sections of America’s clean energy industry.

The energy secretary, Steven Chu, who was grilled on his department’s support for solar power in Congress earlier Tuesday, proudly noted during his testimony that America overtook China in clean energy investment last year.

The US made $56bn in clean energy investment in 2011, overtaking China, which invested $47.4bn. Much of the US investment represented the tail end of the 2009 recovery act funds.

What Chu left unmentioned, however, was that the growth of the US clean energy industry was led by the plummeting costs of Chinese-made solar panels, which brought solar farms closer to the cost of electricity generated from fossil fuels.

American imports of Chinese solar panels have grown exponentially in recent years, from $21.3m in 2005 to $2.65bn last year.

But cheap Chinese solar panels have also put American solar panel makers out of business – and proved a political embarrassment for the Obama adminstration.

The most high profile failure – and the one with the biggest political fallout – was the collapse of Solyndra, which declared bankruptcy after receiving half a billion dollars in department of energy loans.

Another loan recipient, Evergreen Solar, embarrassed the administration by announcing plans to move production from Massachusetts to China because of lower costs. The company ended up going bankrupt.

However, those failures still provided fodder to Republicans in Congress and candidates seeking the party’s nomination to attack Obama for his support for clean energy.

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Renewables industry calls for clarity on post-2020 energy targets

Industry welcomes secretary of state’s support, but urges government to clarify what energy targets it wants to see through to 2030

Green technologies for Orkney : World's Largest Tidal Power Turbine Is Unveiled

A tidal energy turbine in Invergordon, Scotland, in 2010. The renewable energy industry wants clarity on government plans for a 2030 green energy target. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The renewables energy industry has again called on the government to urgently clarify its plans for low-carbon energy development after 2020, following the release of a controversial submission to the EU, which argues the bloc should abandon specific renewable energy targets post-2020.

Energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey yesterday responded to Guardian reports on the document by insisting the government remained “100 per cent committed” to the renewable energy sector and the UK’s 2020 renewable energy targets.

But he argued that after 2020 it would be more effective for nations to set broader clean energy targets that allow them to deploy their own mix of low-carbon technologies, including renewable energy, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage plants.

“The UK is one of a number of countries that believe any new targets should be technology-neutral, leaving member states free to determine the most cost-effective energy mix to get the best deal for consumers,” he wrote.

“Our communication to the commission explicitly states the UK is not in any way against renewables – far from it. Renewables will play a key role in the future UK energy mix, helping to reduce import dependency and meet our carbon targets.”

A spokesman for trade association RenewableUK said the group was encouraged by Davey’s vocal commitment to the sector, but again urged ministers to provide further clarity on its plans for low-carbon energy development post-2020.

The EU submission, which has been published on the DECC website after being leaked to the Guardian, clearly hints the UK would like to see non-technology specific clean energy targets adopted for 2030. But with it also acknowledging that it “would welcome a discussion of the pros and cons of such an approach in due course” it seems unlikely new EU targets will be finalised in the near future.

“We have been calling for clarity on proposed electricity market reforms and long-term investment plans for a very long time,” said a RenewableUK spokesman. “So we would reiterate we need that clarity if we are to drive the long-term investment needed to meet our carbon targets.

“We have seen that wind energy companies are ready to invest, but they want that short- and long-term clarity if they are to seal the deal, particularly given the long payback period for these types of project… Targets are helpful as they ensure everyone stays on course; otherwise, you just end up with aspirations that are too vague.”

In addition, green groups accused the government of attempting to fudge clean energy targets for 2030, after the document stated “the UK government’s analysis suggests that for the UK to meet its 2050 targets cost-effectively, the electricity sector will need to decarbonise during the 2030s”.

Critics argued that any target which allows for decarbonisation “during the 2030s” would represent a major watering down of targets recommended by the independent Committee on Climate Change, which has called for electricity generation to be “almost entirely decarbonised by 2030”.

A DECC spokesman insisted there was “no contradiction” between the government’s position and the committee’s recommendations, which set out a number of different paths for decarbonisation of the electricity sector around 2030.

However, Joss Garman, senior campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said the document and the suggestion that the electricity sector may not be decarbonised until 2039 indicated the government was attempting to give itself space for a slower transition towards low-carbon energy sources.

“Ministers appear to have caved in to fierce lobbying by companies such as British Gas and Shell, which have been fighting to keep the UK hooked on expensive, imported and highly polluting gas to power our economy,” he said, noting the document also confirms the government’s proposed emissions performance standard will allow for the continued construction of new gas-fired power plants in the short term.

“If the coalition doesn’t change course we’ll pay the price in jobs and investment. The likes of Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi are looking to invest huge sums in UK manufacturing to capitalise on our immense renewable energy potential, but by shifting the energy goalposts at the behest of big polluters ministers are sending the message that Britain isn’t open for clean-tech business.”

The Guardian

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UK opposes 2030 renewable energy target

Fledgling green industries could be hit as document reveals move to put nuclear power on equal footing with renewable energy

Wind Farm

UK’s renewable energy sector has already suffered a series of blows with Tory MPs attacking subsidies, including those for wind farms. Photograph: Haydn West / Rex Features

The UK government wants nuclear power to be given parity with renewables in Europe, in a move that would significantly boost atomic energy in Britain but downgrade investment in renewable generation, according to a leaked document seen by the Guardian.

The move would in effect remove the most important prop from the beleaguered renewable energy sector – the Europe-wide targets stipulating that a proportion of each member state’s energy must come from renewable sources.

That target should be scrapped when its current phase – requiring member states to generate 20% of energy from renewables – runs out in 2020, according to a secret submission to the European commission.

“The UK envisages multiple low-carbon technologies: renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage, all competing freely against each other in the years to come … For this reason, we cannot support a 2030 renewables target,” it reads.

But the document calls for “some type of target for 2030”, which a government adviser told the Guardian is likely to be a target for low-carbon energy. This would include nuclear alongside renewables and so far unproven technology for capturing and storing carbon dioxide underground.

The issue of giving nuclear parity with renewables is likely to be controversial for the energy secretary, Ed Davey, as the Liberal Democrat party’s official position is “no to nuclear”.

Industry experts and green groups said that nuclear power and the fledgling renewables industry would not compete on a level playing field, because nuclear technology has benefited from more than six decades of public subsidy, while renewable power has had its support slashed.

The UK’s renewable energy sector has already suffered a series of blows, with an anti-renewables backlash whipped up by right-leaning thinktanks and Tory MPs, more than 100 of whom sent a letter to the prime minister attacking renewables and calling on him to cut subsidies from onshore wind farms. Many wind turbine manufacturers have expressed concern over the effect of this on their prospective multibillion-pound investments in the UK.

Meanwhile, the gas industry has been lobbying heavily, arguing that gas offers a cheap alternative to renewables, despite being a fossil fuel.

Removing the targets could spell disaster in particular for new forms of renewables such as wave and tidal power, which had been tipped as areas in which the UK could lead the world.

Ruth Davis, of Greenpeace, warned that the government’s stance would threaten jobs. “Many companies have already put their investments in UK renewables projects on hold, as they lose confidence in the government’s domestic energy policies,” she said. “By opposing a European renewables target, the UK is signalling that it would prefer business as usual in its own energy sector to a German-style green industrial revolution.”

Davis added that the moves to boost nuclear power would backfire, and be a gift to the gas industry. “Including carbon capture and storage and nuclear power in the target would enable the big six energy companies to retain their current stranglehold on our power sector, building whatever kind of power generation most suits their business models. It will lock in public subsidies to nuclear generation and make us more dependent on expensive imported gas.”

Many of the potential jobs in nuclear generation in the UK, spearheaded by the French company EDF, are likely to go to French experts, as their nuclear industry is much bigger.

Claude Turmes, the Green MEP who was the European parliament draftsman for the original renewable energy directive, warned that the UK government’s stance would imperil efforts to tackle climate change. He said: “Low carbon targets are a Trojan horse, pushed by the nuclear industry and its proxies, to give a boost to ailing nuclear power. Nuclear is already more expensive than a number of renewable energy sources and by 2020 will be more expensive than offshore wind power, for which there is a huge potential in the UK.

“It is hard to understand why the UK government wants to waste its energy on this expensive French technology, when it could be focusing on maximising the potential of home-grown renewable energy technologies, which would create thousands of jobs in the UK.”

Davey said the UK was at the forefront of climate policy in Europe, arguing for the EU’s target of cutting emissions by 20% by 2020 to be toughened to 30%. He said: “I am strongly committed to making the case in Europe for a 30% emissions reduction target. Stepping up our ambition on emissions reduction makes sense for energy policy, it makes sense in terms of green growth and jobs, and now we know it makes sense financially, because it would put us on the most cost-effective pathway to our 2050 target.”

The Guardian

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Solar power firms in Mojave desert feel glare of tribes and environmentalists

Presence of horned toads and desert tortoises are holding up production at multimillion-dollar sites in California

Solar power

A massive solar power site in California, where Native American tribes have filed six lawsuits against companies. Photograph: Proehl Studios/Corbis

Of the many projects commissioned by the Obama administration to showcase its commitment to renewable energy, few are as grandly futuristic as the multibillion-dollar solar power projects under construction across broad swaths of desert on the California-Arizona border.

But at least two developments, including the $1bn, 250-megawatt Genesis Solar near Blythe in the lower Colorado river valley and the Solar Millennium project, are beset with lengthy construction delays, while others are facing legal challenges lodged by environmental groups and Native American groups who fear damage to the desert ecology as well as to ancient rock art and other sacred heritage sites.

Out on the stony desert floor, Native Americans say, are sites of special spiritual significance, specifically involving the flat-tailed horned toad and the desert tortoise.

“This is where the horny toad lives,” explains Alfredo Figueroa, a small, energetic man and a solo figure of opposition who could have sprung from the pages of a Carlos Castaneda novel, pointing to several small burrows. Figueroa is standing several hundred metres into the site of Solar Millennium, a project backed by the Cologne-based Solar Millennium AG. The firm, which has solar projects stretching from Israel to the US, was last month placed in the hands of German administrators and its assets listed for disposal.

Figueroa is delighted with the news. “Of all the creatures, the horny toad is the most sacred to us because he’s at the centre of the Aztec sun calendar,” he says. “And the tortoise also, who represents Mother Earth. They can’t survive here if the developers level the land, because they need hills to burrow into.”

Figueroa, 78, a Chemehuevi Indian and historian with La Cuna de Aztlán Sacred Sites Protection Circle, has become one of the most vocal critics of the solar programme and expresses some unusually bold claims as to the significance of this valley: he claims it is the birthplace of the Aztec and Mayan systems of belief. He points out the depictions of a toad and a tortoise on a facsimile of the Codex Borgia, one of a handful of divinatory manuscripts written before the Spanish conquest.

On a survey of the 2,400-hectare site Figueroa points out a giant geoglyph, an earth carving he says represents Kokopelli, a fertility deity often depicted as a humpbacked flute player with antenna-like protrusions on his head. Kokopelli, he says, will surely be disturbed if the development here resumes.

The area is known for giant geoglyphs, believed by some to date back 10,000 years. Gesturing towards the mountains, he also describes Cihuacoatl – a pregnant serpent woman – he sees shaped in the rock formations. All of this, he says, amounts to why government-fast-tracked solar programmes in the valley, where temperatures can reach 54C, should be abandoned. It is a matter of their very survival.

“We are traditional people – the people of the cosmic tradition,” Figueroa explains. “The Europeans came and did a big number on us. They tried to destroy us. But they were not able to destroy our traditions, and it’s because of our traditions and our mythology that we’ve been able to survive. If we’d blended in with the Wasps – the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants – we’d have been lost long ago.”

At the Genesis Solar site, 20 miles west, Florida-based NextEra has begun to develop an 810-hectare site. The brackets that will hold the reflecting mirrors stand like sentinels. Backed by a $825m department of energy loan, Genesis Solar is planned as a centrepiece of the administration’s renewable energy programme, with enough generating capacity to power 187,500 homes.

But local Native American groups collectively known as the Colorado River Indian Tribes are demanding that 80 hectares of the development be abandoned after prehistoric grinding stones were found on a layer of ashes they say is evidence of a cremation site “too sacred to disturb”.

NextEra rejects the claim, arguing that while Native American artefacts have been found, “no determination” has been made that they come from a village or prehistoric site. “At the request of the Native American tribes we have not tested the ashes, so to suggest this is a cremation site is incorrect,” says the NextEra spokesman, Steve Stengel.

The company says that attempts to sue it by lawyers representing the La Cuna group – which is not federally recognised as a Native American tribe – have already been dismissed. But it warns that losing a 10th of the site over any of these claims could make it uneconomic to proceed.

Critics of the solar programme say problems stem from hasty planning and lack of local consultation – claims denied by bureau of land management (BLM) officials. John Kalish, spokesman for the department in Palm Springs, says: “All the projects were thoroughly analysed and assessed for their impact on cultural and biological resources. As part of that process we developed agreements with the tribes to deal with any potential conflicts.”

But tribal leaders say damage to their sacred sites is inevitable. They have filed suits against six sites, including Ivanpah, a $2.2bn Google-backed project in the Mojave desert which will be the largest solar plant when it comes online in 2014.

BrightSource, operator of Ivanpah, says that claims that hundreds of square miles of desert will be scraped flat, destroying sensitive habitat, are exaggerated. The company calculates that if all 11 plants approved by the California energy commission are built, they would cover only 66 square miles, 0.26% of the Mojave desert’s 25,000 square miles.

The company says it has spent $22m to help the desert tortoises with breeding and nursery programmes, fencing and, at certain times, 100 biologists employed to patrol the site. In addition, BrightSource plans to spend up to $34m to meet federal and state mitigation obligations. The tortoises are not short of attention: one early survey found just 17 across the entire site.

The rush to establish new solar projects has led to reports of a gold rush mentality with some desert areas said to be experiencing a 10- to 20-fold gain in land values.

In others, there are suspicions that the solar business is a rigged game in which projects affiliated to power companies are given the green light more readily. “Land deals are being done but unless you can get connected there is no deal,” says Vinson Johnson, a real estate agent in Twentynine Palms, a city in nearby San Bernardino county, California.

None of this impresses tribal leaders, who argue that the land around Blythe was theirs until their numbers shrank and it came under federal control. “It was reservation land until it was reduced,” says Figueroa. “They didn’t even contact us. So we filed a lawsuit.”

One alternative to using BLM land, he says, would be to use areas that have already been disturbed, such as farmland, abandoned military airfields or the huge testing ranges that dot the south-western deserts.

Figueroa is sceptical of the suggestion that accepting solar would be a greater good. “How much is Mother Earth worth?” he says, sharply.

“Yes, it is good to make use of the sun but not when it comes to disturbing sacred sites, pristine desert, the turtles or the horny toad. We were placed here to be guardians of harmonious equilibrium and we have a mission to ensure the sites are preserved for future generations. We cannot allow them to destroy us.”

The Guardian

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New York’s Solar Balance Sheet

Solar panels atop the roof of the New York Power Authority in White Plains.
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York TimesSolar panels atop the roof of the New York Power Authority in White Plains.

Despite uncertainties in the solar energy market, New York officials should support the “steady and measured growth” of solar power in the state as part of a balanced renewable energy strategy, a new report recommends.

The report, by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, known as Nyserda, evaluated the costs and benefits of pursuing the growth of solar to an installed capacity of 5,000 megawatts by the year 2025, from around 110 megawatts now. Yet because of variables like the cost of photovoltaic technology and the future availability of federal tax credits for solar investment, the authors found it hard to estimate how much solar would really cost.

The financial scenarios vary widely. It could cost New York State ratepayers anywhere from $300 million to $9 billion to install solar power between 2013 and 2049. The report said that under the most likely conditions, the cost would be about $3 billion and the installations would increase electric bills by up to 3 percent in any given year. In other words, the costs exceed the benefits.

Nevertheless, the report, which was mandated by the StateLegislature to guide New York State in its pursuit of renewable power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create jobs, recommended that the state continue policies that support solar, “given the many potential benefits that PV has to offer and the long-term potential for lower-cost PV technology.”

Such policies include investing in research, removing red tape for installation permits and providing sales tax exemptions.

The New York Times

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