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06/30/2009 12:19 PM     print story email story  

DOI Designates Solar Energy Zones News

The U.S. Interior Department Monday designated about 670,000 acres of land on Monday to be "fast-tracked" as potential areas for solar energy production.

Twenty-four tracts of land located in six western states will be called the Solar Energy Study Areas. These tracts will be evaluated for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production. The objective is to provide landscape-scale planning and zoning for solar projects on Bureau of Land Managemen (BLM) lands in the West, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and siting responsible solar development.

“This environmentally-sensitive plan will identify appropriate Interior-managed lands that have excellent solar energy potential and limited conflicts with wildlife, other natural resources or land users. The two dozen areas we are evaluating could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts (MW) of solar electricity," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

Those areas selected would be available for projects capable of producing 10 or more MW of electricity for distribution to customers through the transmission grid system. Companies that propose projects on that scale in areas already approved for this type of development would be eligible for priority processing.

The Solar Energy Study Areas, located in Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah are outlined in maps to be published in the Federal Register today. Only lands with excellent solar resources, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands were considered for solar energy study areas. Sensitive lands, wilderness and other high-conservation-value lands as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded. 

The public will have the opportunity to comment on these proposed solar energy study areas during the environmental reviews before any final decisions are made.  The evaluation is expected to be completed in late 2010.

The Interior Department also announced the opening of a new renewable energy coordination office (RECO) in Nevada, the first of four. The others others will be located in Arizona, California, and Wyoming. The offices will help to expedite processing of the increased number of applications for renewable energy projects on U.S. lands.

Currently BLM has received about 470 renewable energy project applications. Those include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres, with a projected capacity to generate 97,000 MW of electricity.  That’s enough to power 29 million homes, the equivalent of 29% of the nation’s household electrical consumption. The BLM will continue to process existing renewable energy applications, both within and outside of the solar energy study areas.

Interior also is coordinating with states to expedite permitting for a number of solar power projects nearing approval. The BLM will begin site-specific environmental reviews for two major projects in Nevada that would have a combine capacity of more than 400 MW of electricity:  the NextLight Silver State South array is planned to produce 267 megawatts; and the NextLight Silver State North would produce about 140 MW. 

An ongoing federally-funded environmental evaluation of potential solar energy development on public lands in 6 Western States, known as the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, will be expanded to include an in-depth analysis of the potential impacts of utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in the 24 Solar Energy Study Areas.

The BLM will continue to process the 158 active solar applications during preparation of the PEIS. The bureau will also continue to accept new applications both within and outside of the Solar Energy Study Areas.

This expanded evaluation, a collaborative effort with the Department of Energy, will allow the Bureau of Land Management to take a close look at each study area to determine where it makes sense to develop large-scale solar projects in an environmentally responsible way. Companies proposing solar energy projects in designated areas would be able to “tier” to this study, using it as part of their environmental impact studies for site-specific projects, which are required by the National Environmental Policy Act.


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