US government to accelerate solar development on public lands

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As part of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce carbon pollution and spur renewable energy development on public lands, the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has unveiled detailed provisions to implement its Western Solar Plan.

The BLM said its mitigation strategies would “expedite the safe and responsible development of solar energy zones in Colorado, Arizona and Nevada.”

The strategies apply a landscape-level approach to managing development in designated areas, known as Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), on public lands. In line with BLM regulations for other types of development on public lands, the guidelines identify natural, cultural and human resources that could be impacted by potential solar development and seek to mitigate any unavoidable impacts off-site. “The strategies provide certainty to potential project developers by recommending a per-acre fee that would fund off-site mitigation measures and streamline environmental review for individual projects within the zones,” the BLM said.

BLM Director Neil Kornze added, “These strategies represent a win-win for the environment and renewable energy development by taking stock of potential impacts upfront and identifying appropriate offsets, saving time and preventing costly do-overs late in the process. Solar energy development is a promising resource for Western states and counties, and the BLM is committed to moving forward with smart development of this resource.”

The BLM established the Solar Energy Zones as part of its Western Solar Plan for solar energy development, which was finalized in 2012. The plan provided a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah by establishing zones with access to existing or planned transmission, incentives for development within those areas, and a process through which to consider additional zones and solar projects.

The new strategies follow the BLM’s first regional mitigation strategy for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Clark County, Nevada. That effort led to the first successful Solar Energy Zone auction, which brought in $5.8 million for the U.S. Treasury, and helped the agency approve projects in half the normal time, according to the BLM.

The office also released its final strategies for three SEZs in Arizona (Yuma, La Paz and Maricopa counties) and one in Lincoln County, Nevada. The Nevada SEZ — the 25,069-acre Dry Lake Valley North – is the largest of five zones in that state, capable of producing up to 4 GW of renewable energy. The BLM also released a draft mitigation strategy for three SEZs in Colorado’s San Luis Valley and expects to release the final strategy this spring.

The BLM said it had conducted extensive public outreach and “multi-stakeholder workshops” in each of the states prior to the release of its strategies, which are not National Environmental Policy Act documents or decisions. Rather, they are strategy documents aimed at helping inform analyses of specific solar project proposals. The strategies are available on the websites of each BLM state office in Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.