US: Identification of solar energy zones to speed up permitting processes

In introducing the Supplement to the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development (Solar PEIS), Ken Salazar announced that SEZs on public lands will be identified in six U.S. states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah – in order to boost deployment of utility-scale solar projects. Specifically, 17 SEZs, totaling around 285,000 acres, have been identified.

The news comes following the issuance of a Draft Solar PEIS by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Energy last December 17, which attracted over 80,000 comments.

The news has been positively met by industry stakeholders. In a statement issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council, it was said, "Based on a briefing from Interior the supplemental appears to include a number of modifications that could improve the process for siting large-scale solar projects on public lands, laying the foundation for a durable, successful solar energy program."

Johanna Wald, director of the western renewable energy project at the Natural Resources Defense Council added, "The major elements of the policy framework released today by the Interior Department – a preference for zones, a process for adding new zones, and a variance process for projects process that will allow well-designed projects outside of zones – appear to achieve that balance, and I look forward to working with Interior, partner environmental groups, the solar industry and utilities to develop a strong and comprehensive final program."

Meaningful zones

The belief is that by establishing "meaningful" zones which, for example, already have transmission solutions, and where wildlife, cultural and historical resources have already been evaluated, permitting processes will be improved, and "greater certainty" achieved.

Overall, four incentives will be available to those who use SEZs. These are:

  • The facilitation of faster and easier permitting;
  • The improvement and facilitation of mitigation;
  • The facilitation of the permitting of needed transmission to SEZ; and
  • The provision of economic incentives for development in SEZs.

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

The introduction of SEZ will not mean, however, that solar projects cannot be developed on other areas of land. In a question and answer sheet released by the Interior, it was said, "the BLM’s modified program alternative allows for responsible utility-scale solar development outside of SEZs.

"The BLM proposes to identify lands outside of the proposed exclusions and SEZs as variance areas for utility-scale solar energy development. Variance areas would be open to application but would require developers to adhere to the variance process detailed in the Supplement."

Furthermore, the parties say they are open to suggestions on where more zones can be added. For example, they say that other, state-based planning efforts to establish additional SEZ will be taken into consideration, including those from the Arizona Restoration Energy Design Program, the West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation, and the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.

The Supplement has been designed to incorporate improvements to the originally proposed solar PEIS, such as the best way for identifying SEZs and establishing a variance process for those looking to develop facilities outside of them. A public 90 day comment period on the supplement has now begun. Four public meetings will also be held. It is anticipated that the Final Solar PEIS will be available in July 2012.

In terms of already submitted project applications, the BLM says it will continue to process them consistent with existing regulations and policies.

Meanwhile, the BLM has defined ‘pending’ applications as "applications on file with the BLM before publication of the Supplement, including applications for lands within proposed SEZs filed before June 30, 2009", and ‘new’ applications as "those applications filed within proposed SEZs after June 30, 2009, and any application filed after the publication of the Supplement."