ROACH DRY LAKE, Nev. —Not a light bulb's worth of solar electricity has been produced on the millions of acres of public desert set aside for it. Not one project to build glimmering solar farms has even broken ground.
Instead, five years after federal land managers opened up stretches of the Southwest to developers, vast tracts still sit idle.
An Associated Press examination of U.S. Bureau of Land Management records and interviews with agency officials shows that the BLM operated a first-come, first-served leasing system that quickly overwhelmed its small staff and enabled companies, regardless of solar industry experience, to squat on land without any real plans to develop it.
At a time when the nation drills ever deeper for oil off its shores even as it tries to diversify its energy supply, the federal government has, so far, failed to use the land it already has — some of the world's best for solar — to produce renewable electricity.
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Nowhere is this more evident than in Nevada, where a Goldman Sachs & Co. subsidiary with no solar background has claims with the BLM on nearly half the land for which applications have been filed, but no firm plan for any of the sites.
The Obama administration says it is expediting the most promising projects, with some approvals expected as soon as September. And yet, it will be years before the companies begin sending electricity to the Southwest's sprawling, energy-hungry cities.
"Clearly we spent a lot of time and effort on oil and gas, but those priorities have changed," Ray Brady, BLM's head of energy policy in Washington, told the AP.
Congress in 2005 gave the Interior Department a deadline: approve 10,000 megawatts, or about 5 million homes' worth during peak hours, of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Reaching that goal was left to the BLM, which oversees federal land and knows oil, gas and mining leases but is new to solar.
The Bush administration, however, kept BLM's focus on oil. BLM's database of solar applications shows many languished for years while the agency approved more than 73,000 oil and gas leases in the past five years. BLM has yet to give final approval to one solar lease.
BLM's solar leasing system ended up allowing developers to lay claim to prime sites — many in the deserts that span California, Nevada and Arizona. All developers had to do was fill out an application, pay a fee and file development plans.
But many were so vague that it was difficult for BLM to separate the serious projects from the speculative ones.
While dozens of smaller firms joined in the rush, BLM records show two Goldman subsidiaries filed 52 of the 354 applications throughout the region, more than any other company.
In September, at least two "fast-track" projects — by Oakland, Calif.-based Brightsource Energy and by First Solar-owned Nextlight — are expected to get the first solar permits issued by BLM. Bringing plants online, however, will likely take years.