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BLM Solar Auction a Big Flop: Decentralized Solar to Blame?

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Colorado's San Luis Valley, where no one wants to buy solar rights at auction | Photo:adventurejournalist/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Here's an idea that looks like it might not catch on in California anytime soon. The Bureau of Land Management held an auction in Colorado Thursday morning to sell off solar energy rights the same way the agency auctions fossil fuel rights, but it failed miserably: no bidders showed up.

The BLM had offered three parcels in the sunny, high-altitude San Luis Valley in southern Colorado, covering about 3,700 acres. The San Luis Valley has been incredibly attractive to solar developers in the past, with at least three solar facilities already producing power and more on the drawing board. The BLM has designated four Solar Energy Zones in the valley that cover a total of 25.5 square miles.

So you'd think a proposed auction of solar development rights in the San Luis Valley would be a draw. But no representatives of solar companies turned out to bid at Thursday's auction, and the BLM didn't receive any sealed bids from those not in attendance. "We are going to have to regroup and figure out what didn't work," the BLM's Maryanne Kurtinaitis told Mark Jaffe of the Denver Post.

The three parcels had drawn inquiries from more than two dozen companies, five of which had gone so far as to file preliminary project applications. The parcels had access to transmission and starting bids between $3,300 and $4,300 per acre. But that didn't prove attractive enough to prompt any developers to take part in the auction.

Possible reasons for the failed range from uncertainty over long-term federal environmental requirements to recent queasiness about big solar projects among lenders. In Colorado as in California, the market continues to favor small-scale, decentralized projects in cities that can be built more quickly and cheaply, with less need for new transmission and fewer environmental impacts. Just four California counties -- Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Diego, and Riverside -- already have 474.5 megawatts of distributed solar installed, with another 100 megawatts under construction, according to the California Solar Statistics website. Statewide, 1,303 megawatts of distributed solar now puts power into the state's grid, and another 300 megawatts will go online soon.

That far outstrips actual output from the 25 solar projects the Interior Department has permitted on pubic lands across the west, some of which have yet to begin construction.

Take for example the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, being built in the Mojave Desert across the state line from Primm, Nevada. That project was formally announced by the BLM six years ago, in November 2007. When it's completed and starts generating power, it will provide a maximum of 370 megawatts of power to the state's grid. Though the solar trade press was recently aflurry with reports that the project is now delivering power, those reports mistakenly referred to a test in which one of the plant's units was temporarily "synced" with the grid for the first time. A BrightSource representative at an October meeting to discuss the firm's Palen project told attendees "I think we can still have Ivanpah up and running by the end of the year." Recent press reports now have that launch starting early next year. Assuming a year of planning on BrightSource's part before the BLM's November 2007 Notice of Intent, that's seven years of work to get 370 megawatts of generating capacity online.

In the months since January 2011, by contrast, at least 377 megawatts of generating capacity has been installed on residential rooftops in the state. That's having given BrightSource a four-year head start, and some of that power has been flowing into the grid from day one.

And this fact is not lost on investors, who have been quite happy to move their money from large projects to the leasing firms and suppliers who make the small ones happen. But some continue to envision a future of big solar projects in the wide open spaces of the West, including the San Luis Valley, and find yesterday's failed auction disheartening. "We are disappointed not to see any bidders," the Wilderness Society's Alex Daue told the Denver Post. "This is still the right way to plan and guide development so we meet our clean-energy goals."

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