National plan will protect wildlands and support solar energy

Concentrating solar project with trough technology

NREL, Warren Gretz

The nation’s plan for guiding much needed solar energy development away from sensitive public lands and to the right places became public this past week.

Supporters of wilderness protection and renewable energy got a boost with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) publication of a final solar energy plan for public lands in the six southwestern states.

The final solar energy plan was developed by the BLM with help from environmental groups, solar developers, sportsmen, county officials and many others.  Many of these groups have applauded the publication of the final solar energy plan, the culmination of nearly three years of collaboration.

Responsible solar development in the southwest

In addition to wild red rock canyons and saguaro-studded deserts, public lands in the southwest have some of the best solar resources in the world.  To protect wildlife habitat and the wildlands where people hike, hunt and fish with their families, we need a careful approach to building large solar energy projects.

The final solar energy plan published by the BLM provides a blueprint to do just that by focusing development in places where damage to the environment can be limited and projects have the best chance of success.

A roadmap for responsible solar energy development

The BLM’s final solar energy plan, known as the Final Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, uses a number of tools to help guide development to appropriate places.  The plan:

  • Designates 17 low-conflict “Solar Energy Zones” on 285,000 acres- areas with great solar resources outside of important wildlife habitat or wilderness
  • Provides incentives to project developers to build in the zones, including faster permitting times, priority for new transmission lines and potentially lower costs
  • Establishes a process to designate additional zones in appropriate locations in the future
  • Allows developers to submit applications on 19 million acres outside the zones through a “variance process” that sets a higher bar for going outside the zones and requires developers to show that their project will not have heavy impacts on the land
  • Requires development of mitigation plans for each zone to mitigate, or off-set, impacts from projects within the zone by protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat outside the zone

Protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat

The final solar energy plan is a huge improvement over the current system, which allows development on 98 million acres (an area 1.5 times the size of Colorado), including millions of acres of wildlands and important habitat for threatened species like the desert tortoise.

By protecting many of these sensitive areas from development and guiding projects to low-conflict zones, the final solar energy plan will provide the foundation for a responsible solar energy program on public lands for decades to come.