Solar Plan Still Needs Some Tweaks

Solar Energy Arizona

NREL

In a few short weeks the Department of Interior will close their comment period on an updated plan for solar development on public lands in the six southwestern states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The newest plan, published in October, proposes a balanced approach to developing clean energy while protecting sensitive resources. This framework will help protect our sensitive wildlands and wildlife while ensuring that we get the sun’s clean energy into homes across the West.

Through the Solar PEIS, the Department of the Interior can provide industry with greater certainty on where and how to develop projects, while also protecting diverse, rich and vulnerable wildlife such as desert tortoise and Greater sage-grouse, outstanding recreational areas like the Red Rock National Conservation Area outside o f Las Vegas, and important places like Arizona’s Sonoran Desert National Monument.

The Supplement published in October improves upon the Draft Solar PEIS released in December 2010, and was developed in response to over 80,000 public comments, including recommendations offered by citizens in the southwest, conservation groups, solar developers  and major utilities. While many details will need to be worked out in the months ahead, the revised plan has the key elements of a framework to advance responsible solar development on our public lands.

DOI is offering a balanced approach to solar development that avoids conflicts through early engagement. The revised plan identifies specific areas where development should—and should not—occur based on solar potential and environmental impacts. These are many of the recommendations The Wilderness Society outlined in our Smart Solar report last fall, and in comments submitted by our community last spring.   We will also be submitting comments for the upcoming deadline to further refine BLM’s revised plan with the goal of protecting wilderness quality lands and facilitating solar development in appropriate locations.

This early identification guides developers to places with fewer impacts through three avenues: first, by guiding projects to 17 solar energy zones, low-conflict areas that have been prescreened to avoid serious environmental impacts and are protected from competing uses; second, by creating a clear process to receive nominations for new zones in appropriate locations; and finally through a variance process to allow development of well-sited projects outside of zones. Taken as a package, these avenues will facilitate responsible solar development on public lands while protecting our most important wildlands and wildlife habitat.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy , the solar resources contained in six western states— California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado—are more than enough to satisfy the country’s entire electricity demand. These significant resources have spawned a 21st century gold rush—as of late 2010, more than 100 applications were pending in the region for utility-scale solar energy projects and the Interior Department continues to accept additional applications. However, this current approach lacks certainty and predictability for developers, utilities and conservation groups alike, imposing high costs on stakeholders who care about our public lands and want to meet renewable energy goals.

America needs a comprehensive plan for solar development on our public lands, and the BLM’s revised plan is headed in the right direction. The Administration, the business and conservation community, as well as clean energy leaders recognize that solar energy from America’s public lands is one of the keys to achieving a clean energy future. By creating a solar program for BLM lands that focuses on putting solar projects in the right places, we can protect wildlands and wildlife habitat, tackle our climate and energy challenges, and build the green energy economy we need to compete globally in the 21st century.

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