Interior moves to fast-track solar development

This story first appeared in E&ENews PM.

The Interior Department on Monday announced several steps for fast-tracking the development of solar energy on public lands, including setting aside more than 670,000 acres for solar study zones and expediting their environmental analysis.

The actions will allow 13 commercial-scale solar plants to be under construction by the end of next year, which will create 50,000 jobs, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. Making the announcement in Las Vegas alongside Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Salazar also said the department would begin an environmental analysis for two specific projects in Nevada.

"I would hope that when people look back in the year 2020 to this announcement ... they will see this as a true milestone in moving the United States of America forward in the renewable energy future," Salazar said.

Salazar signed a directive setting aside 676,048 acres for solar study zones, he said. That land will be divided into 24 "solar energy study areas" in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The department already has 34 applications for solar projects within the zones, he added, and a total of 155 solar applications on Bureau of Land Management lands.


The land will be preserved for future solar development for two years while studies and analyses are done to support a final decision on setting it aside for 20 years, according to the Federal Register notice. Anyone who wants to submit comments or objections may do so for 90 days, it says.

Interior will fast-track environmental analyses to determine the most appropriate areas within the zones for siting solar projects, Salazar said. But he added that development must be done in a "thoughtful way," including public input, so it does not harm the environment. The department will spend $22 million conducting the studies, he said.

BLM and the Energy Department's Federal Register notice announces the availability of maps showing the areas to be analyzed in their joint programmatic environmental impact statement and solicits public comment.

BLM will continue processing existing renewable energy applications within and outside the zones while the broader environmental analyses take place. The agency will continue accepting applications, but now they will be subject to any decisions made from the environmental analysis.

Interior will also open four renewable energy offices, including one in Las Vegas, to help process and expedite applications for renewable energy projects, Salazar said. The others will be in Arizona, California and Wyoming.

Two Nevada projects

Interior filed two notices of intent to begin a site-specific environmental impact statement for two solar energy permits for NextLight Renewable Power LLC on public lands in Clark County, Nev. The two projects combined would produce about 400 megawatts of power, more than a mid-sized coal-fired power plant, Salazar said. They would be located on about 7,840 acres.

Reid called Nevada the Saudi Arabia of solar power and said there are already millions of acres set aside for oil and gas. "It's about time we did something for renewable energy," he said.

Bob Irvin, Defenders of Wildlife's senior vice president for conservation programs, said his group appreciates Interior moving forward with a process to identify areas for solar development.

"But as we move toward a clean energy future, it's imperative for our future and the future of our wild places and wildlife that we get the planning process right," Irvin said in a statement. "That means we need smart planning for renewable power that avoids and minimizes adverse impacts on wildlife and wild lands. These projects should be placed in the least harmful locations, near existing transmission lines and on already disturbed lands."

At a hearing in June, Senate appropriators raised concerns about whether Salazar's push for renewable energy development on public lands could cause permanent environmental harm. Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said solar projects are "huge" and their size should be limited so they do not "become an enduring blight upon the land" (E&E Daily, June 4).

A provision in the committee report accompanying the Interior appropriations bill directs Interior and the Forest Service within 180 days to submit a report on the criteria for siting renewable energy projects, a detailed strategic plan on how the agencies will coordinate their development, and an analysis of the useful life of renewable energy sites and how infrastructure will be removed when no longer functional (E&E Daily, June 26).

Click here to read the Federal Register notice.

Click here to read a notice of the proposed setting aside of land in six states for solar energy development.

Click here to read the notice of intent to prepare environmental analyses for two projects in Nevada.

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