Finally: Feds deliver road map on solar zones

Huge solar farms on public desert lands are controversial because of both their size and environmental impact. But the federal government hopes to ease some of those conflicts with the development of a road map that identifies 285,000 acres of public land that will make the best locations for solar energy development in six western states.

The road map, called Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, not only pinpoints suitable land but also sets the framework for carrying out the environmental impact study for each proposed project on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of Interior. With this blue print, the federal government expects to speed up and improve its process for permitting solar power plants, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar during a press conference.

The BLM selected 285,000 acres and divided them into 17 energy zones in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The energy zones could accommodate 23.7 GW of solar energy projects, or enough to run 7 million American homes, the BLM estimated.

“It maps out where it makes sense to develop solar energy. Just as importantly, it maps where it doesn’t make sense for solar energy,” Salazar said. “The blue print guides the development away from important environmental and cultural resources.”

The lack of this impact statement got the BLM in trouble back in 2008, when the agency decided to stop accepting solar project applications and then reversed its decision quickly after loud complaints from the solar energy industry and politicians who support solar  because of the promise of job creation and clean energy. The BLM wanted to put a moratorium on new applications so that it could devote time to creating the impact statement.

Instead, BLM created a system to put certain solar projects on a “fast track” status while it works on finishing the impact statement (here is a list of “fast track” projects for 2012). The agency has approved 17 projects totaling 5.9 GW since 2009. The projects include the 392 MW power plant being built by BrightSource Energy in California’s Mojave Desert and the yet-to-be-built 1 GW Blythe Solar project in California that its German developer recently sold to NextEra Energy.

The first solar power plant to be completed on BLM land was a 50 MW project in Nevada built by First Solar and owned by Enbridge, and it went live earlier this year.

The department considered three main criteria for selecting the zones: the abundance of sunlight, proximity to transmission lines and impact on environmental and cultural resources (such as American Indian grave sites).

Aside from the 17 energy zones, the impact statement also identifies another 19 million acres on public land that are outside of the energy zones that also are open for solar energy development, though the projects to be located on the 19 million wouldn’t enjoy the same, expedited process as those that fall within the energy zones, Salazar said.

While future solar projects in the energy zones may move through the review process more quickly, they could still face strong opposition from environmental and community groups that have used lawsuits and other means to negotiate compromises or seek to gut the projects all together.

The impact statement unveiled today will be open for protest for 30 days, after which Salazar will decide whether to give it the final approval.