Solar Firms Turn to Foreclosed Properties for Land

Finding the land to build a solar power plant can be a headache. Solar plants require a large footprint to soak up the maximum amount of sun’s energy — anywhere from 4 to 14 acres per megawatt of electricity generated.

This need for land puts solar firms in direct conflict with a tangle of environmental and bureaucratic regulations, and has helped stymie new projects even as demand for renewable energy from state governments has soared.

Now, some firms are turning to an alternative resource that, unfortunately, is in great supply right now: abandoned real estate developments.

Ready-made land

Mojave Sun Power recently purchased 6000 acres from Jim Rhodes, a developer in Arizona whose company, Rhodes Homes, filed for bankruptcy last year. Mojave hopes to build a 340 megawatt solar thermal power station on the property.

Because the land was already permitted for development, it will not require the same number of regulatory and environmental hurdles federal land would.

The property also comes with more water rights than the power plant will need (an important factor in the water-starved West) and electrical transmission to the property was recently upgraded, according to Greentech Media.

Solar power projects create an opportunity for distressed investors to sell property before the real estate market improves, according to the Arizona Republic.

John Reeder, a member of the Solar Acquisition Group at Sperry Van Ness Real Estate Advisors in California told the paper, “we offer these owners the potential to exit from the property years in advance of any housing recovery.”

First Solar, the thin-film PV maker, recently partnered with Edison Mission Group to create a pipeline of projects on private land. On drawback: the projects are smaller — 50 to 150 mW — than those on public lands.

Environmental headache for clean energy

As the industry has grown, solar power producers have hoped to gain access to cheap, abundant federal land but are finding opportunities elusive.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently working on a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development on government land, but the date of a final report is still “to be determined,” according to a BLM website.

Meanwhile the Bureau has been flooded with applications from solar power developers, of which only a handful out of hundreds have gotten far enough along to do an environmental review.

The slow progress is especially galling, given the access to public land fossil fuel companies have enjoyed. As was pointed out at Solar Power International last year, while oil and gas companies have hundreds of permits to operate on federal land, solar companies to date have exactly zero.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

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