Smarter solar energy - where are the right lands to put solar?

solar plant

What do solar energy and real estate have in common? Location, location, location.

Our western public lands are home to beautiful wildlands and wildlife habitat, as well as some of the best solar resources in the world.

While building large-scale solar projects on appropriate sites can create jobs, boost the economy and help tackle the threat of climate change, we want to make sure they don’t have negative impacts on cherished wildlands and wildlife habitat.

In fact, large solar projects can have a footprint of thousands of acres or several square miles, and require that land be dedicated to this purpose for decades – for these reasons, it is critical that projects only be built in areas with minimal conflicts.

Without a focus on the most appropriate areas for development, we risk unacceptable impacts to our natural heritage – millions of acres of wilderness quality lands, wildlife habitat, cultural resources and recreational experiences would otherwise be open targets – and projects mired in conflicts, controversy and costly delay.

This month, we’ve released a new report that shows why there is a groundswell of support for focusing solar development in low-conflict zones and examines 24 proposed solar energy zones that the Bureau of Land Management has identified as part of its renewable energy initiative on western public lands.  These zones are intended to be in places with great solar resources and minimal conflicts with wildlands and wildlife habitat.

The report, titled Smart Solar – Focusing on Low-Conflict Zones to Promote the West’s Economy, Protect Wildlands, and Build a Clean Energy Future, gives an armchair tour of the places the BLM is considering for solar development, including our recommendations for refining the proposed zones.

The report also lays out the reasons why we have said we will support 21 of the zones, if BLM makes refinements, and identifies three proposed zones that have such unacceptable risk to wildlife habitat that they should be removed from the Bureau of Land Management’s initiative.

We are working hard to get the zones right, because The Wilderness Society supports responsible solar development on public lands, but it must be in the most appropriate places for projects to succeed while protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat.

What makes a good solar zone?

Smart Solar explains why, with improvements, most of the proposed zones make sense for solar development: they have great solar resources and do not include sensitive wildlife habitat or wilderness quality lands.  Further, most zones are flat and are close to existing roads and power lines, which will reduce impacts from development and decrease construction costs by reducing the amount of new roads and work to flatten the sites.  With our recommended modifications, proposed zones such as the Dry Lake zone near Las Vegas, Nevada and the Brenda zone west of Phoenix in Arizona meet these criteria.Three of the proposed zones, the Iron Mountain and Pisgah zones in California and the Bullard Wash zones in Arizona, do not meet these criteria because they contain sensitive wildlife habitat that is not acceptable for development and would cause conflicts, controversy and delays for projects proposed there.

What’s next?

The BLM is working on completing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for the 24 proposed solar zones. This PEIS will form the backbone of the BLM’s solar energy program, and will define which zones are available for development.

A Supplement to the PEIS, scheduled for publication in October 2011, will refine the current 24 proposed zones, including possibly eliminating some zones, and create a process for identifying additional zones going forward.

The BLM will be providing 90 days for public comment on the Supplement and we will be commenting to ensure the three proposed zones with serious natural resource conflicts are not designated. We’ll also ask that refinements are made to the proposed zones that need improvements.

We’ll be calling on our supporters over the coming months to help support our efforts to get the solar energy program for our public lands right.  By commenting on the Supplement we can be sure the BLM only allows responsible development.

You can stay informed about upcoming comment opportunities by signing up for wildalertswe will be sure to let you know when the time is right to send comments to BLM on the solar energy program.

In the meantime, we hope Smart Solar will give you the knowledge you need to support renewable energy and protect our natural heritage.