The Trump administration has rolled back many Obama-era environmental programs, but so far, it hasn't managed to kill them all.
A little-known solar-energy program in the West is still kicking, and now, under that program, a California-based subsidiary of South Korean company Hanwha is hoping to use nearly 5,000 acres of federally managed desert land near Quartzsite, in southeastern La Paz county, for a solar plant.
174 Power Global Corporation applied to the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the land, late last year. On Wednesday night, the BLM held a meeting in Quartzsite to hear feedback from the local community, part of a much longer process to determine whether the agency will grant the company permission to build its proposed utility-scale photovoltaic solar facility there.
If built, the facility would have peak generation of roughly 800 megawatts of electricity. Sitting just south of Interstate 10, it would be close to the recently approved but still-to-be-constructed substation and Ten West Link transmission line.
The closest town is the unincorporated community of Salome, home to roughly 1,700 people.
"It's pretty wide open," Rem Hawes, a spokesperson for the BLM's state office in Arizona, told Phoenix New Times. "There's no adjacent town or anything like that," he added, and the land itself is "not overly developed." He said the BLM received 174 Power Global's application in December.
If the project is approved, 174 Power Global would have to pay the BLM annual rental fees, plus roughly $2,300 per megawatt generated, according to Hawes.
The rental fees vary widely, a price list from the BLM shows, and depends on the value of the land. Per acre fees in 2020 range from about $17 to $58,471. Renewable energy advocates have criticized those prices as being "exorbitant," compared to fees for oil and gas leases.
The proposal is still in the early stages. It must be approved by the BLM, then go through an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act process, before it can be fully approved and construction can begin.
Patrick Shim, the director of project development for 174 Power Global, said the company hasn't yet picked a utility to sell to.
"Many utilities have expressed interest in sourcing clean renewable energy from solar farms developed in Arizona," Shim told New Times through a spokesperson. "We are working diligently to identify and to work with the appropriate utility off-taker for our solar farm."
The electricity would go to customers in both Arizona and California, he said. It chose the site in Arizona about 30 miles east of Quartzsite because, well, it's sunny and flat there.
"We have found the solar resources to be very strong at this particular location," Shim said. "The total amount of sunshine available throughout the day is relatively high compared to other regions, and we are interested in finding large plots of flat land necessary for our solar farms."
According to its website, 174 Power Global is constructing or operating utility-scale solar facilities in Texas, where it has the biggest solar facility in the state; Coahuila, Mexico; Florida; and Nevada. The proposal in Arizona appears to be its first in the state, which has some 300 days of sunshine per year but relies primarily on natural gas and nuclear energy to produce electricity, federal data show.
Arizona's regulatory environment for renewables, including solar, has faced uncertainty in recent years. Utility regulators at the Arizona Corporation Commission have proposed various new renewable or clean energy standards. In 2018, the renewable energy ballot initiative Proposition 127 lost by a wide margin.
The state's current renewable-energy standard is more than 10 years old and requires 15 percent renewable energy, a term that excludes nuclear energy, by 2025. But as of 2018, 89 percent of Arizona's energy came from natural gas, nuclear power, and coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Most recently, in the fall, Corporation Commissioners heard proposals to increase that mandate. In January, Arizona Public Service, the state's largest electric utility, announced plans to use 45 percent renewable energy by 2030 and to be entirely carbon free, in part with nuclear power, by 2050.
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Shim did not address questions about the impact of those fluctuations on 174 Power Global's proposal to build in Arizona. Instead, he said, "Arizona, quite simply, has abundant sunshine and we are very excited to develop our solar farm in a state where solar makes so much sense."
Meanwhile, the company "continues to review potential sites across the U.S. to determine the best locations that are environmentally and technically suited to deliver the lowest cost energy to our customers," Shim said.
The BLM's Solar Energy Program was established in 2012 across six state in the Southwest, including Arizona. It aims to promote the development of utility-scale solar energy on public lands. It doesn't automatically approve solar energy developments, but rather, lays out a process by which solar projects are examined and decided upon. So far, it has approved two solar projects in Arizona — one in Quartzsite, and another in Maricopa County.
The lifespan of 174 Power Global's Arizona plant would be approximately 40 years, including construction, operation, and decommissioning, according to Shim. "At the end of the solar farm’s life, the plant will be decommissioned using accepted industry practices and at a reasonable cost," he said.