Will solar energy prove a win-win for wildlands?

Unlike conventional energy production, we don't have to raze mountaintops or drill into our national wildlife refuges to access energy provided by the sun. Huge swaths of the Southwest receive enough sun to power utility-scale solar energy projects. Not only does solar energy not run out: it also runs wide.

In fact, in the Southwestern United States alone, the sun provides enough energy to power our country 6 times over!

This abundance gives us an important opportunity. We have the power to choose where to locate the solar projects that will feed our clean-energy future and help meet our nation's goals to address climate change. But we also have the responsibility to make these siting decisions wisely — because not all solar energy projects are created equal.

Recognizing the importance of thoughtful siting decisions, the Bureau of Land Management is developing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development. After completing environmental analysis and public review, this document will determine which areas on public lands will be open to solar projects.

This week, as a step toward preparing the draft PEIS, the BLM released maps of Solar Energy Study Areas in six key states: Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.

The maps highlight solar energy development priority areas, chosen for their high solar energy potential, their proximity to existing transmission and other infrastructure, and-importantly-"least conflict" with other land uses and resources.

The BLM has committed to avoiding sensitive and protected lands, such as areas in the National Landscape Conservation System and important wildlife habitat, and is taking public comments for 30 days to refine the areas.

Staying true to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's vision for guiding development of renewables on our public lands, the BLM is taking the reins and appears to be dedicated to developing solar energy the smart way.

We have too many sunny lands to choose from to make foolish decisions. Why destroy our pristine wilderness lands, already endangered by the effects of fossil-fueled global warming, when we can build clean energy projects on less sensitive lands? 

In order to lay out a plan for balancing these priorities, The Wilderness Society has worked with eight other environmental groups to outline a set of principles for developing renewable energy while simultaneously protecting our most sensitive lands

Sticking to lands with high potential and low conflict benefits everyone. If we want clean energy fast, we should first use the lands that developers, citizens and environmental groups can agree to quickly. The BLM's proposed study areas could generate over 100,000 MW of electricity - more than 10% of the nation's existing electric generation capacity.

That's not to say that tough choices won't play a part in clean energy development. But we should begin with projects that promise the least possible costs, both fiscal and environmental. We can tackle greater challenges when we have time, experience, and improved technology on our side. By carefully controlling solar energy development, learning from our actions and by making decisions based on the public interest, the BLM's approach puts us on the path towards a successful and sustainable clean energy future.

Find more information on renewable energy and public lands on our renewable energy page, where you can take a look at our six factsheets that outline the technology, benefits, and impacts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy. These factsheets suggest methods for smart development of these important resources and potential for mitigation where lands are impacted.