The U.S. Department of the Interior on July 24 released a long-awaited comprehensive plan for solar energy development in six Western states.
The plan, which was released in draft form in December 2010, identifies nearly 285,000 acres of public land in 17 solar energy zones, plus 19 million acres in "variance" areas outside the zones. The acreage is identified for its high quality solar resource in addition to proximity to existing or proposed transmission lines with a low level of conflicting resource values. The zones are in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah and are identified for expedited permitting of large-scale solar projects.
"This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America's public lands," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said during a conference call announcing the plan. "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."
There were no solar energy projects on public lands when the Obama administration took office in 2009, Salazar said. Since then, the department has approved 17 utility-scale projects that, when completed, will produce nearly 6 GW of solar energy. Salazar said that with the help of the final programmatic environmental impact statement for solar energy development, that number is expected to grow dramatically. A Federal Register notice, scheduled to run July 27, will begin a 30-day protest period, after which the solar programmatic environmental impact statement may be adopted through a record of decision.
The plan outlines a process for project development and permitting, and for the industry and interested parties to participate in a zone proposal or expansion, the department said. The plan seeks to protect natural and cultural resources, identifies best practices, and establishes a framework for mitigation plans and monitoring.
The plan also includes incentives for development within zones, including faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies and economic incentives.
"The U.S. Southwest is home to some of the best solar resources in the world," Solar Energy Industries Association President and CEO Rhone Resch in a statement. "It's a region universally recognized for its enormous potential to enhance our energy security. Consequently, the administration set a goal to permit 10 GW of additional renewable energy projects on public lands by the end of this year. The U.S. solar industry is ready to meet that challenge."
DOI's Bureau of Land Management is processing 78 applications for solar energy projects on public lands, said Mike Pool, acting director of the BLM. Pending applications will not be subject to the new elements of the program, he said. Also, solar development in the identified 285,000-acre development zone and the variance areas is expected eventually to produce more than 23 GW of solar energy by 2030, Pool said.
The plan is the result of more than 80,000 comments received from cooperating agencies and stakeholders. Pool said input from stakeholders refined the zones to ensure development success. A group statement released by the Natural Resources Defense Council praised the plan's release and boasted support from companies such as BrightSource Energy Inc., enXco Inc., First Solar Inc., NRG Energy Inc., Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison Co., as well as environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.
"It's smart business to guide energy development to places where conflicts with nature can be avoided or minimized," Jim Lyons, senior director of renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, said in the joint statement. "Balancing our nation's energy production by increasing solar, wind and geothermal sources will strengthen our economy, improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gases. This solar energy plan is an important step in that direction."
Copyright 2012 SNL Financial LC. All Rights Reserved.
(Originally published July 25, 2012, in SNL Power Daily with Market Report.)