Those of us who love wildlands want to protect them from the damages of oil and gas drilling, industrial development and inappropriate exploitation, but in our excitement to combat climate change and move toward renewable energy development we cannot forget that large renewable energy projects, such as wind and solar, can have negative impacts on the land as well.
That’s why The Wilderness Society has become a leading advocate for ensuring renewable energy projects are set up in the right places - where they can contribute to a clean energy future without harming special or sensitive wildlands.
For the past several months we’ve been evaluating a set of areas on western public lands that the Interior Department is studying for potential solar energy development. Our goal is to help ensure that renewable energy is not developed on sensitive public lands. We support guiding projects to limited Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) where there are excellent solar resources, nearby transmission lines, limited environmental conflicts, and existing roads and other disturbances.
Our new report In the Zone identifies the lands out West that we’ve found to be most suitable for utility scale solar development while limiting the impacts to our public lands.
- For example, in Arizona, we recommend an area 100 miles west of Phoenix called the proposed Brenda Solar Energy Zone. Proximity to existing roads and transmission lines will limit impacts by reducing the amount of new infrastructure needed to support solar projects. That existing infrastructure could provide a path to carry electricity to cities. The lack of sensitive species, presence of flat and stable soil type, and relatively low plant density and wildlife use made the proposed Brenda Solar Energy Zone a clear choice.
- In Colorado, we found that the proposed Antonito Southeast Solar Energy Zone stood out as a great place to look for project sites due to its flat topography, lack of drainages, proximity to transmission, and low conflict with wildlife habitat use and conservation areas. Antonito Southeast does have some Gunnison’s prairie dog use on the western edge, but these areas could be easily avoided by moving the proposed zone boundaries slightly to the east.
By guiding development to these zones, much-needed renewable energy projects can be built faster, cheaper, and better for the environment and consumers. The Bureau of Land Management will be able to rely on some of the environmental analysis already conducted, making the project-specific environmental evaluation and development of any needed mitigation measures faster. Further, because the zones have been selected for their low conflicts with other resources and uses, there should be less opposition that would otherwise have led to extended conflicts over projects.
In the Zone will help you understand how we evaluated and chose to highlight these zones, why putting projects in zones is better, and how sound policy decisions can make solar development viable as well as limiting the threats to our lands, avoiding the impacts that improperly regulated oil and gas development has caused in the past. In order to ensure renewable energy’s heavy tread on the landscape occurs only as needed, we must have clear rules of the road to make certain that large-scale solar development is done right from the start.
Our public lands will play an important role in providing for our nation’s energy needs and a plan must be developed to ensure that the problems of the past related to oil and gas extraction not plague the clean energy development of the future. Renewable energy is part of a clean energy future that also includes aggressive efforts to cut energy use, increase efficiency, and build distributed generation like rooftop solar.
Knowing that our public lands hold a natural heritage unmatched in the world, providing us with clean air and water, habitat for wildlife and healthy ecosystems, and places to hike, hunt, fish, or simply connect with nature, it’s important to ensure that some of our most treasured lands are protected.
That’s why we are encouraging the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to make these zones a key part of their program for solar development—guiding projects to these areas. The agency is now developing its Solar Program¬matic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which analyzes the impacts that development and various technologies can have on ecosystems. The first draft of that PEIS will be released soon and it will hold the answer as to where the agency’s preferred development solar energy zones will be.
Designating appropriate zones and requiring that projects go there is a common-sense way to speed responsible development – In the Zone shows how.
The proposed Solar Energy Zones profiled in In the Zone are:
- Brenda proposed Solar Energy Zone, Arizona
- Antonito Southeast proposed Solar Energy Zone, Colorado
- Millers proposed Solar Energy Zone, Nevada
- Afton proposed Solar Energy Zone, New Mexico
- Milford Flats South proposed Solar Energy Zone, Utah
Colorado site. Photo by Jon Belak.