Solar, Storage

BLM Reloading After Colorado Solar Land Auction No-Shows

Dusting off its agenda after the weeks-long U.S. government federal shutdown, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) last week held its first competitive auction for public lands in designated Solar Energy Zones (SEZ) in Colorado — but nobody offered to buy.

Back in 2010 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had identified “solar energy zones” (SEZ) in six western states, and last fall the Western Solar Plan was finalized into 17 zones spanning nearly 300,000 acres of public land, with combined resources approaching 32 gigawatts (GW). Additional SEZs have since been added in California and Arizona.

After receiving some initial interest specifically in portions of those lands in Colorado, the BLM issued a RFP this spring for three parcels spanning two SEZs in the San Luis Valley across roughly 3,700 acres, with projected solar energy potential of 400 MW. (Colorado has four SEZs in total.) That RFP generated nine applications from five companies, and more than two dozen “expressions of interest.” Minimum bonus bids were set at $63/acre based on rent values and value of interests of applicants — $3,352 for the De Teilla Gulch zone, and $4,035 and $4,284 for the Los Motoges East parcels (north and south, respectively)

When it came time for the live auction last week, however, none of the companies who submitted preliminary applications showed up, according to the BLM. There were other developers in attendance — First Solar, Abengoa, Namaste — some of whom likely are interested in Nevada’s Dry Lake SEZ and wanted to check out the BLM’s auction process, offered Vanessa Lacayo, spokesperson for the BLM’s Colorado office.

Reports suggest any number of reasons for the absence of bids, from lack of clarity in the processes to various policy and financing uncertainties, to questions about transmission access. There are no immediate plans for another auction at this time, but Lacayo emphasized that these specific areas will continue to be available for competitive solar energy development, as will all the SEZs “as long as we continue to get interest.”

The real question is, should we read anything into this lack of interest in the BLM’s first SEZ auction, and extrapolate that into what it means for large-scale solar energy development in general? We heard an awful lot last week at Solar Power International (SPI) about distributed solar generation and all sorts of related topics, from growth in residential and commercial-scale sectors to ongoing debates on net metering and how to value solar energy. Even the utilities honored by SEPA during the show shared strong community solar themes. It did feel like there was less emphasis on megasolar energy development. That could change, though, at next year’s SPI in Las Vegas, in the heart of the U.S. Southwest which has been the nexus of large-scale solar development in the country. Solar energy developers and suppliers we talked with during and after last week’s SPI in Chicago who didn’t have a significant presence there have indicated they’ll be back in full force in Vegas.

Lead image: Broken and old chair left on the sand at the beach pointed to the sunset behind a hill, via Shutterstock