Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke suggests solar power may not best use of public land

Saturday, 30 September 2017, 04:25:13 PM. Despite President Donald Trump’s speeches that he happens “to love the coal miners” but that wind power “kills all the birds,” the administration’s official poli…

By Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post

Despite President Donald Trump’s speeches that he happens “to love the coal miners” but that wind power “kills all the birds,” the administration’s official policy is ostensibly to pursue an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

Under such a policy, as it’s described, the government does not pick winners and losers in the marketplace. Private firms are free to develop the energy source they determine to be the most economical. The more sources of electricity and fuel there are domestically, the thinking goes, the less dependent the United States is on other nations to meet its energy needs.

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it in a March television interview: “Producing energy domestically and reasonable regulation is far better than watching it being produced overseas with no regulation.”

All of which is why solar energy advocates were scratching their heads after a recent comment Zinke made in a speech during National Clean Energy Week were a poor use of publicly owned land.

In the comments, Zinke seemed suggested that utility-scale solar projects were a poor use of publicly owned land – and that solar companies should look away from Interior’s land and toward the roofs of homes and businesses for solar panel space instead.

“If I see solar cells out on land, that land is no longer useful for anything else but energy, but there’s a lot of roofs when you fly over,” Zinke said, according to Politico. “And I think the greatest opportunity, quite frankly, for the solar industry is look at all the roofs in America.”

Zinke then corrected himself. “People ask me, ‘am I a fossil fuel guy?’ ” he added. “I’m like, ‘no, I’m all the above.’ ”

The Obama administration pushed to open public lands – traditionally thought of for oil, gas and coal development – to renewable energy, too. Interior under Obama approved 60 utility-scale renewable energy projects that totaled 15,500 megawatts of capacity. A majority – 36 – of those projects were solar. And days after Trump’s election, the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior office that manages public lands used in energy development, finalized rules for an auction program for solar project leases on federal lands.

Under Trump, Interior has approved one solar project. And Zinke has publicly criticized at least one Obama-era solar project – one that in addition to being build on public lands was partially financed through the Energy Department’s loan-guarantee program.

“If you’ve been outside of Las Vegas and looked at that solar field, it kind of looks like a scene from Mad Max,” Zinke said of the Ivanpah solar plant in Nevada during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an influential Washington’s business group.

“Is that the future of having these three or four 80-foot towers with reflector cells the size of garage doors where it makes this cone, this sphere of death, so as birds go through it they get zapped?” he asked.

Zinke, however, is out of line with public opinion: In 2017, nearly 2 in 3 Americans, or 65 percent, said priority should generally be given to developing alternative energy over fossil fuels, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Citing that and other polling data, Alex Daue, assistant director of the energy and climate campaign at the Wilderness Society, said Zinke is “clearly out of touch with the desires of the American people and the direction that the country should be headed when it comes to energy.”

What Zinke is doing: All energy production has some environmental drawbacks – renewables included. Indeed, an audit of the aforementioned Ivanpah project, which concentrates sunlight onto a tower over 600 feet tall, found that it killed an estimated 6,185 birds over a 12-month period. Environmental groups, like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, have opposed some Obama-era solar projects due to their effects on desert ecosystems.

But in his comments during Clean Energy Week, Zinke does not emphasize the environmental impact of fossil-fuel development in the same way as with utility-scale solar.

In talking about hydraulic fracturing in front of the National Petroleum Council, for example, he didn’t mention fracking-induced earthquakes or flammable water. Instead, according to The Associated Press, he said, inexplicably, that fracking is “proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us.”

Heather Swift, Interior’s press secretary had this to say: “The Secretary supports all of the above energy and the Department is in the process of processing solar projects as well as traditional energy projects. The Secretary said very clearly that he thinks there’s a great opportunity for rooftop solar. In fact, some DOI facilities, such as our parking facility in Sacramento, California, already utilize rooftop solar.”

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