Solar-panel stimulus runs into bureaucratic roadblocks

One of the issues about Barack Obama’s stimulus bill, although hardly the most contentious, was the speed in which funds would get spent.  Critics warned at the time that the deluge of cash in a short time period would overwhelm bureaucracies tasked with accountability for the funds as well as federal and state agencies involved in licenses and permits.  That has certainly been the experience for NextEra Energy Resources, which wanted to take advantage of incentives for solar power in California.  Unfortunately, the deadline may run out before California can get around to considering its permit applications:

The company proposed a 2,000-acre solar farm, named Beacon, on fallow agricultural land on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert. The site has the great desert sun but is on degraded land near a freeway, an auto test track and old buildings.

The site “is exactly where solar should be,” says David Myers, head of conservation group Wildlands Conservancy.

But two years later, NextEra still awaits permission to begin construction from the California Energy Commission, which grants permits on such projects after environmental reviews. Time is running short, not only for NextEra but for several dozen green-energy projects in California. Ground must be broken on them before year’s end to get federal stimulus funds worth 30% of the projects’ cost. …

Yet the sheer number and size of the California projects, especially a dozen huge solar farms unlike anything regulators have reviewed in 20 years, is stressing agencies and stakeholders alike. No other state has so many huge solar projects in the pipeline. Billions of dollars in stimulus funds ride on whether the permitting process can be sped up without sacrificing California’s stringent environmental standards.

No corners are being cut, regulators say. But some environmentalists fear that the tight deadlines will lead to projects that could’ve been better with more time. And companies say that some projects, like NextEra’s, have suffered delays born of inefficient permitting.

The project certainly sounds like a worthy idea, although whether it should involve taxpayer subsidies is another question.  If solar power could be made more efficient — or more accurately, if storage from solar power could be made more efficient — it would provide relatively cheap energy in mass production that is not only renewable but could also lower our dependence on foreign energy resources.

However, in order for these kinds of projects to succeed both scientifically and economically, people need to be able to buy or lease land and install the equipment efficiently.  Taking two years for permitting and licensing is not going to get investors interested in backing these projects.  What’s holding up the works for NextEra?  For one thing, the state is requiring an abatement plan for an endangered species that doesn’t live on the property in question:

At a January hearing before the California Energy Commission, NextEra unfurled a string of complaints about the process. The Beacon site had to have a plan to relocate desert tortoises, although the site “has no desert tortoises,” NextEra’s Scott Busa said. The company had to redo a plan five times to monitor ravens that prey on baby tortoises, although the solar fields would draw fewer ravens than the sheep that currently graze and sometimes die on the land, providing a “raven buffet,” Busa said.

He also said state regulators gave NextEra a 382-day plan to offset any effect on Native American cultural resources on the site, when the company didn’t have 382 days before it had to break ground to get stimulus funding.

The state later lowered that to 180 days, belatedly realizing that a key part of the incentive would disappear sooner than 382 days.  A better question may be why NextEra needs to jump through these hurdles in the first place.  California needs cheap energy in order to boost its staggering economy, and yet they’ve wasted two years in getting the NextEra project on line by forcing them through a Byzantine permitting process.

These problems didn’t start with Porkulus, of course; NextEra had its headaches well before February 2009 on this project.  But critics warned that these very bureaucratic pitfalls would negate the momentum needed for a quick-acting economic stimulus, which is why they recommended sweeping tax breaks and reforms instead.