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BLM Should Re-Think its Failed Solar Auction to Drive Innovation

Last month the Department of Interior (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) held its first competitive auction for commercial solar development on public lands, offering three parcels for lease with a collective acreage of 3,700 in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The three leases are located in two of DOI’s designated “Solar Energy Zones,” which the DOI carved out for quick solar development due to access to existing transmission, limited environmental impacts, and cheap land rental.

If fully developed, these two Solar Energy Zones could potentially produce 400 MW of energy, enough to power an estimated 125,000 homes. Unfortunately DOI was alone in their enthusiasm as the auction drew zero bids from solar companies. Moving forward, DOI should learn from this initial failure and expand its Solar Energy Zones to also act as a test bed for next-generation clean energy designs, not just off-the-shelf technologies.

The auction outcome took DOI and solar advocates by surprise because the leases were such a good deal and there is significant interest in solar development in Colorado. Leases were offered at fairly low starting bonus bid minimums ($3,352; $4,035; and $4,284

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Ernie Moniz

ARPA-E Announces a Different Path for Solar Innovation

Despite the House of Representative’s recent vote to cut appropriations for the Department of Energy’s breakthrough research agency, ARPA-E, by 74 percent, the agency continues to advance the development of next-generation clean energy technologies. ARPA-E recently announced a $30 million funding opportunity, Full-Spectrum Optimized Conversion and Utilization of Sunlight (FOCUS), aimed at developing new hybrid solar energy systems that include storage, at lower costs and with greater performance.

The FOCUS program is looking for projects that research and develop solar technologies beyond current photovoltaic and concentrated solar power models. Research will specifically confront the persistent and most inhibiting performance weakness of existing solar technologies and a major obstacle for improving solar cost competitiveness: providing consistent energy supply when the sun is not shining.

Like ARPA-E projects in general, these solar projects won’t look like your average commercial panels. Instead of funding incremental improvements in solar cell efficiency, ARPA-E’s investments aim to accelerate transformative changes to the way we think about harnessing and controlling solar energy. The FOCUS program recognizes that to reach cost-competitiveness, new solar technologies must not only improve efficiency, they must do so in a way that provides

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