Is Ken Salazar's Plan for Large Solar Projects the Right Way to Go?

December 17 2010, 1:00 PM

Yesterday, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that big-scale solar-energy zones would be created over 1,000 square miles of public lands in six Western states, including Colorado, along with financial incentives for private companies to invest in the idea. The Colorado zones would cover 21,000 acres in the San Luis Valley and areas from northern Moffat County to the town of San Antonio, near the New Mexico state line, according to The Denver Post.

Thousands of jobs could be created, but so could controversy over a familiar eyesore: power lines, which are needed to carry the energy into homes, an issue that has already proved contentious with local renewable-energy projects. Transmission corridors are not identified in a new study proposing the project. "Unless we're able to get the energy from where it's produced to where it's consumed, it's all for naught," Salazar admits. As it stands, there is a backlog of applications for projects dating back to the George W. Bush administration, reports The Washington Post.

The proposal "lays out the next phase of President Obama's strategy for rapid and responsible development of renewable energy on America's public lands," Salazar says (via The New York Times). But the project could be mired in problems since solar electricity is more expensive than other forms of energy. And court challenges from environmentalists, landowners, and recreational users of public lands could arise. Some experts don't believe large-scale projects, with power lines that bring renewable energy to cities from far-off places, are the right approach. In an engaging read from the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, engineer and energy consultant Bill Powers argues for the "think-small" crowd, pointing out that solar panels are more powerful than they used to be, 40 percent cheaper than a year ago, and can easily be installed on rooftops.