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A sunny day for Secretary Solarczar, but a slog ahead?

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar was back in Colorado today, August 4, touring a Longmont solar panel company as a way of pushing the Obama administration's vision of a clean energy economy. But that vision, which involves collecting abundant solar power from a procession of solar farms set up on public lands, might be a little soggy in spots.

Not that the plant Salazar visited today isn't beacon of light in a bad economy. Abound Solar is hardly the biggest operator in the field, but it has created a couple of hundred "green jobs" and provided gainful application of solar research that the founders started at Colorado State University. The company can turn sheets of glass into solar panels in under two hours, or so this press release burbles. A few thousand more companies like this one and we'll forget all about those ailing automakers in Detroit.

But one of the key talking points of Salazar's visit is how his agency is sinking $41 million in stimulus dough toward rapid development of renewable energy on public lands, including "environmentally appropriate expedited solar energy development." It's unclear what kind of solar we're talking about, or where, but Clean Ken is shooting for 100,000 megawatts of solar-generated electricity down the road.

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That's a lot of panels. Or tubes. Or whatever. And depending on the technology involved, it's also a lot of water required to maintain the system -- a precious resource in the West, as the Secretary knows well from his days as a water lawyer in downtown Denver. By my own cocktail-napkin calculations (danger! math involved!), large-scale operations using concentrated solar power, supposedly the most cost-efficient technology available right now, would suck up more H2O than a fleet of marathon runners. Even a more water-friendly, solar-panel version would require about 100 liters of water per megawatt hour, or 10 million liters for a grid the size of the Obama vision.

Of course, traditional forms of energy extraction, like frack drilling, use hefty amounts of water, too. There may be secrets of "environmentally appropriate" solar farms yet to be revealed, as Salazar walks the tightrope between competing interests outlined in my feature "The Zen of Ken." But as the green dreams of the new administration inch closer to reality, there are still plenty of questions about how green they really are.

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