After more than two years of study and public comment, the Interior Department on Tuesday identified 17 sites on 285,000 acres of public land across six Southwestern states as prime spots for development of solar energy.
Agency officials said the government would fast-track applications for large-scale solar energy installations at those sites in the hope of speeding construction of thousands of megawatts of renewable, nonpolluting electricity generation.
The agency identified an additional 19 million acres of public lands in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico as potential locations for solar energy projects that could win rapid federal approval.
But officials said they were fencing off more than 78 million acres of public land from solar development because the areas had less solar energy potential, did not have immediate access to transmission lines or posed a threat to important archaeological or cultural sites, endangered species, scarce water resources or other environmental values if developed.
“This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades,” the interior secretary, Ken Salazar, said.
Republican critics have accused the Obama administration of restricting energy projects on public lands and waters, and such charges are a staple of the current political campaign, particularly in Western states and along the Gulf of Mexico. Administration officials have bent over backward to show their commitment to resource development on lands and waters the federal government controls.
On Monday, the Interior Department announced a 20-million-acre oil and natural gas lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico, and the agency has liberally granted permission over the last year for mining and drilling across the West, in the Gulf of Mexico and in Alaska.
On the solar energy front, the Interior Department issued a document on Tuesday known as a final programmatic environmental impact statement covering more than 3,000 pages that detailed the considerations in narrowing the sites for solar development and described the process for permitting new projects.
The agency has already approved 17 large-scale solar energy projects on public lands that are expected to produce nearly 6,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 1.8 million homes. The department estimated the resource potential of the newly identified development zones at 23,700 megawatts, enough to power seven million homes, by 2030.
Solar industry and environmental advocates reacted favorably to the announcement, saying it would mean jobs and renewable power for years to come.
“Renewable energy development on federal lands is essential to reaching our national clean energy goals,” said Arthur L. Haubenstock, vice president for regulatory affairs at Brightsource Energy, a solar technology company.
Helen O’Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s western renewable energy project, said she hoped the new plan would help the nation address climate change while protecting wildlife and critical habitat.
Opponents will have 30 days to formally protest the solar plan, after which Mr. Salazar will consider adopting the document through executive action.