US opens 285,000 public acres to solar development

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The states targeted for solar energy projects are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. In addition, according to the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, ongoing and future regional planning processes may approve solar development on approximately 19 million more acres that are located in "variance" areas lying outside of the identified SEZs.

The 17 zones alone, when built, will produce nearly 5.9 GW – enough to power approximately 1.8 million homes. In total, the solar blueprint estimates a total deployment of 23.7 GW from the 17 zones along with the variance areas – enough renewable energy to power seven million American homes.

According to the impact statement’s authors, "The final Solar PEIS represents a major step forward in the permitting of utility-scale solar energy on public lands throughout the west." However, there are still some details to be ironed out both at the programmatic and project levels, said the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). In a statement released, it added, "Over the next several days, the groups will review the SPEIS in closer detail, and we look forward to continuing to work collaboratively to implement an environmentally responsible solar energy program."

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior, manages vast stretches of public lands that have the potential to make significant contributions to the nation’s renewable energy portfolio. This gives the BLM a leading role in fulfilling the Obama Administration’s goals for a new-energy economy based on a rapid and responsible move to large-scale production of solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy.

"This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America’s public lands," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. "This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades."

Key elements

The Solar PEIS will serve as a roadmap for solar energy development by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, the fewest resource conflicts, and incentives for development within those zones.

The PEIS encourages and delineates development at the sites, by:

  • Outlining a process for industry, the public and other interested stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones (efforts already include California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation, Arizona’s Restoration Energy Design Project, and other local planning endeavors in Nevada and Colorado);
  • Including strong incentives for development within zones, including faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies, and economic incentives;

    Creating a clear process to facilitate development of well-sited projects on approximately19 million acres outside the zones;

  • Protecting natural and cultural resources by excluding 78 million acres from solar energy development;
  • Identifying design features (best practices) for solar energy development; and
  • Establishing a framework for regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management (the first mitigation pilot for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone is already underway).

"Developing America’s solar energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s commitment to expanding American-made energy, increasing energy security, and creating jobs," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. "This new roadmap builds on that commitment by identifying public lands that are best suited for solar energy projects, improving the permitting process, and creating incentives to deliver more renewable energy to American homes and businesses."

"Input from stakeholders has been extremely valuable throughout this process," said Acting BLM director Mike Pool. "Their comments have helped to refine the zones to make sure they’re ‘smart from the start’, to improve the transmission analyses and to build effective incentives into this blueprint for solar development."

In support of more detailed system-level analyses of transmission needs, the BLM is engaged in ongoing transmission planning efforts, including through the Transmission Expansion Planning Policy Committee and the Western Electricity Coordination Council’s transmission study.

The July 27 Federal Register Notice of Availability for the Final PEIS will begin a 30-day protest period, after which Secretary Salazar may consider adopting the document through a Record of Decision.

The BLM released the Draft Solar PEIS in December 2010, and in response to the more than 80,000 comments received from cooperating agencies and key stakeholders, issued a Supplement to the Draft Solar PEIS in October 2011.

Access the Final Solar PEIS; see a detailed list of the 17 Solar Energy Zones.

Edited by Becky Beetz.