WASHINGTON — The six states of Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah could soon find themselves at the heart of the renewable energy revolution promised by President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar following the release of “Solar Energy Study Area” maps today by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The energy potential available in the areas highlighted in these maps could one day generate over 100,000 MW of clean solar energy for the entire nation.
The maps highlight priority areas for solar energy development that have been selected due to their high resource potential, limited conflict with other resources and uses, and proximity to existing transmission and other infrastructure. The maps are expected to supplement BLM’s preparation for a responsible solar development program by focusing analysis and review on the lands which are most appropriate for development.
“This is night and day when compared with the previous administration and the way oil and gas development has been approached,” said Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator for The Wilderness Society. “The BLM is appropriately prioritizing a critical energy source for our clean energy future and, in the process, protecting public lands and guiding projects to the best places.”
The agency’s draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development is due out late this year. It is anticipated that the PEIS will determine which areas are open for solar projects on public lands while also providing guidance on best practices to minimize impacts. Following today’s announcement, there will be a 30-day comment period on the maps.
“We will be analyzing the maps closely and providing detailed recommendations to refine the Study Areas for the comment period, but we’re very encouraged that BLM has already screened for important criteria including visual resources, critical wildlife habitat, and special management areas. An initial analysis indicates that less than 2% of the Study Areas overlap with wilderness quality areas – we’ll be working with the agency to address that overlap and other issues, but this is a very good start,” Daue said.
“We hope this kind of prioritization becomes the way the agencies approach all energy and transmission development on public lands,” Daue said.
Though not specifically endorsing the study areas identified, solar energy advocates also hailed the release of the maps because they expect this type of decision will allow the BLM to focus their immediate resources on areas where solar projects will have the least environmental impact and are most likely to move forward quickly. Advocates view this is as an important first step on the path to comprehensive permitting process reform for accelerating responsible renewable energy development on federal lands.
“The administration is taking the right approach,” said Craig Cox, executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, an industry trade group. “Industry looks forward to working with Secretary Salazar on the Interior Department’s solar ‘Fast-Track Initiative’ and welcomes the Department’s opening of renewable energy coordination offices to expedite processing of new applications in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Wyoming.”
Cox was not alone in his praise.
"We need to see responsible large-scale renewable development if we are going to overcome the great economic, environmental and energy reliability challenges facing our nation today," said Jim Baak, utility-scale solar policy director at the Vote Solar Initiative. "Secretary Salazar should be commended for his vision of a renewable energy future that upholds the principles of land conservation. We hope that the BLM’s focus on careful planning and stakeholder collaboration ushers in a new era of smart renewable energy development, and we look forward to participating in this process."