Move over, solar – we have some fracking and mining to do

The developers behind the six commercial-scale solar projects currently underway on public lands out West might want to have backup plans if comments by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this week are any indication of his department’s attitude toward solar.

As reported by E&E News, Zinke took his opportunity to speak at the National Clean Energy Week Conference to signal his disdain for using public lands for solar energy while reiterating his support for the Trump Administration’s plans to open those same lands to more mining, fracking and drilling.

“If I see solar cells out on land, that land is no longer useful for anything else but energy, but there’s a lot of roofs when you fly over,” Zinke reportedly told the assembled clean-energy experts. “And I think the greatest opportunity, quite frankly, for the solar industry is look at all the roofs in America.”

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told E&E News that Zinke supports an all-of-the-above energy strategy, and that the Department is processing solar projects as well as traditional energy projects.

To date, the Interior Department under Zinke has approved one solar project: First Solar’s 210-MW White Wing Solar Project in Arizona. First Solar’s project is on private land but needed a right-of-way exception so its transmission lines could cross 3.5 miles of federal land.

Reports on the six other projects awaiting approval say they would have the capacity to generate nearly 2 GW of electricity. If Zinke’s comments are any indication of the department’s attitude, however, those projects may be put on hold.

Even groups that have concerns about utility-scale solar projects on public lands because of their potential effects on wildlife are troubled by Zinke’s remarks and hope Interior will approve the projects. Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, told reporters:

“If Zinke tells them not to, that would be unfortunate,” Delfino said. “They are focused now on churning out oil and gas and coal, and if that means throwing renewables under the bus, they will.”

Still, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) looked on the bright side of the situation, choosing instead to focus on the fact that both Zinke and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry attended National Clean Energy Week at all.

“From rooftop panels to large scale installations owned by utilities, there is room for all solar energy and each one plays an important role in the diversification of our nation’s electricity mix,” said Abigal Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the association. “We are pleased both Sec. Zinke and Sec. Perry took part in National Clean Energy Week, and we look forward to continued conversations with both of them on the ways in which solar is strengthening America.”

The reports on his comments come at the same time The Washington Post reported that Zinke joined a host of other Trump administration officials by taking a $12,000 private jet ride to his home in Montana. Significantly, the jet was owned by an oil company executive.