Guiding Development to Designated Zones Will Reduce Impacts and Alleviate Some Concerns
Washington, D.C. – In a much-anticipated effort to set the rules of the road for solar energy on federal public lands in the southwest, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released a draft plan today, outlining where projects can be located and how permits will be issued.
In its draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), the agency presents a preliminary analysis of the expected impacts of tapping abundant solar energy resources found on public lands in six southwestern states. The analysis set out to ensure solar power from public lands can help meet the West’s renewable energy needs over the next 20 years. To do this, the PEIS looks in depth at 24 priority areas, called Solar Energy Zones (SEZs). With the exception of two areas, these zones present low risk of conflict with sensitive lands and wildlife. However, the draft also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development without a clear explanation for why the identified solar energy zones are insufficient.
“The BLM has the authority and the opportunity to make the better choice and guide projects to zones,” said Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator at The Wilderness Society. “The agency’s commitment to identifying zones is commendable. Solar energy zones should be more than lines on a map. They are common sense places to start.”
Prioritizing development in these zones benefits developers by providing greater certainty and concentrating federal resources. The proposed solar energy zones that the BLM has already identified will allow plenty of room for solar to grow responsibly over the near term. Taken together, the zones provide nearly three times the land required to meet ambitious projections for the region’s solar energy needs. The BLM should encourage projects be built in these zones and create a system for designating additional zones as needed in the future.
“Just turning open our public lands to commercial energy development is an outdated approach that has proven costly to the west’s economy, rural communities, and the environment,” said Daue. “Renewable energy resources are critically important to our economic and environmental security. They deserve a new approach.”
The Wilderness Society released a report earlier this week, setting the stage for zones that DOI should prioritize for development. In the Zone: Powering the Future and Protecting Wildlands with Guided Solar Development, profiles five proposed SEZs—one each in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah—from among 24 Solar Energy Study Areas identified by the BLM in 2009. These zones have great solar resources and avoid places like National Monuments, critical wildlife habitat, designated Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, areas with a high density of cultural sites, and other sensitive lands.