Interior Maps Best Solar Development Zones in Six States

WASHINGTON, DC, October 28, 2011 (ENS) – In the six sunniest Western states, solar energy zones, with transmission solutions and incentives for solar energy development within those zones, have been identified by the Department of the Interior.

Releasing the analysis on Thursday, officials said the comprehensive analysis will make for faster, better permitting of large-scale solar projects on public lands by identifying potential conflicts with wildlife, cultural resources and environmentally sensitive areas before developments are proposed.

The revised plan, known as the Supplement to the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development, or Solar PEIS, is intended to improve upon the Department of the Interior’s earlier plan for solar zones.

It maps out the best zones for solar development in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, covering 285,000 acres (445 square miles).

“This Solar PEIS establishes for the first time a blueprint for landscape-level planning that will help facilitate smarter siting of solar energy projects,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Today’s announcement lays a solid foundation for an enduring, sustainable solar energy future for our nation.”

Mirrors focus sunlight on a central tower that will convert that energy into electricity at the Ivanpah Solar Project on the California-Nevada border. (Photo by Daniel Eralte)

“Our partners in this effort have suggested ways to strengthen the proposed solar energy program and increase certainty regarding solar energy development on public lands,” he said.

To ensure that proposed solar energy zones are located in appropriate areas, the Supplement to the Solar PEIS describes the process for identifying zones, including an analysis of transmission availability and potential natural resource conflicts.

The Supplement also describes in more detail the incentives for developers to site new projects in solar energy zones – including greater certainty and shorter permitting times – and it identifies on-going regional planning processes that are being used to identify additional solar energy zones.

The Federal Register Notice of Availability for the Supplement begins a 90-day public comment period, after which Interior’s Bureau of Land Management will prepare a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision.

“Commercial scale renewable projects leave a sizeable footprint, that’s why this document is so important,” BLM Director Bob Abbey told reporters on a teleconference.

“Public involvement has been a vital component in every step of our solar energy program,” said Abbey. “We’ll use the public input from the upcoming comment period to ensure solar development on public lands is ‘smart from the start.'”

Nearly 81,000 comments were received on the Draft Solar PEIS, which BLM developed with the Department of Energy and published on December 17, 2010.

After analyzing those comments, gathering additional data and consulting with cooperating agencies and resource managers, the BLM has modified its preferred alternative to identify 17 solar energy zones, totaling about 285,000 acres potentially available for development within the zones.

The BLM refined or removed zones that had development constraints or serious resource conflicts.

The modified preferred alternative in the Supplement establishes a variance process, going forward, that will allow development of well-sited projects outside of solar energy zones on an additional 20 million acres of public land.

BLM Priority Projects already being processed will not be subject to the proposed new variance process.

Interior’s solar program will incorporate other, state-based planning efforts to establish additional solar energy zones, the Supplement states. State planning efforts for new zones include: the Arizona Restoration Energy Design Program, the West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation, and the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

The Supplement also makes clear that industry, the public and interested stakeholders can propose additional zones for consideration.

As it completes the Solar PEIS, Interior officials said the agency will continue to process existing applications for renewable energy development on public lands “in a coordinated, focused manner with full environmental analysis and public review.”

There are 79 existing projects and applications in the queue covering 685,000 acres. Secretary Salazar said, “These will be processed in the normal course, which is not to say all 79 applications will be approved, but we are committed to reviewing them all and making decisions on each.”

In the past two years, Interior has approved 22 major renewable energy projects, including 13 commercial-scale solar energy facilities that combined will create about 8,600 construction and operational jobs and produce nearly 5,000 megawatts of energy, enough to power approximately 1.5 million American homes.

“Tapping the vast potential of solar resources in the Western states will go a long way to diversifying the country’s energy portfolio and re-establishing our position as a clean energy leader in a global market worth trillions of dollars in the long term,” said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “Advancing the deployment of utility-scale solar projects will not only help provide clean power to local utilities, it will also drive down the cost of solar energy and create American jobs in the rapidly-growing clean energy economy.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.