DOI Issues Well-Received Solar Plan for US West

As part of its "Smart from the Start" Initiatives for renewable energy development, the Department of the Interior (DOI) released its final plan for where large scale solar development can occur on public lands.

The Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) details the most suitable areas for siting solar projects in six southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

It establishes 17 "solar energy zones" as priorities for utility-scale solar projects, covering 285,000 acres. The zones have the potential for 23.7 gigawatts (GW) of solar, which would provide electricity to 7 million homes.

All zones are in areas that receive strong sun, either have access to transmission lines or plans to build them, and are in areas that conflict the least with other uses, such as sensitive wildlife areas. 78 million acres are prohibited from solar energy development.

As with the "Smart for the Start" program for offshore wind, by completing environmental impact assessments in advance, permits for priority areas will be easier to get and fast-tracked.

"This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America’s public lands," says Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar. "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."

After receiving over 80,000 comments last year, DOI agreed to revise the solar roadmap, cutting the number of zones from 24 to 17.  

The PEIS also:

  • Identifies design features (best practices) for solar  development to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of solar energy;
  • Establishes a framework for regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management. The first mitigation pilot for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone is underway.
  • Outlines a process for industry, the public and other stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones. Efforts  underway include California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation, Arizona’s Restoration Energy Design Project, and other local planning efforts in Nevada and Colorado. 
  • identifies an additional 19 million acres available for "well-sited" projects, but applicants would have to pay for enironmental impact studies.

Leading environmental and solar industry groups issued a press release endorsing the plan, including Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Audubon Society,  Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Solar Energy Industries Association, Southern California Edison, Vote Solar, First Solar, and Brightsource Solar.

It says:

"Over the past two years, a diverse coalition of stakeholders – including solar energy companies, clean energy advocates, conservation groups and electric utilities, working together in an unprecedented fashion – provided joint comments and actively engaged in finding solutions that work for solar energy as well as for wildlife and wildlands.

These groups advocated for balanced, guided development that avoids, minimizes, and effectively mitigates impacts on wildlife and sensitive lands and reduces the uncertainty and time for permitting of solar power projects and associated transmission – a process advocates call "smart from the start."

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Since 2009, DOI has approved 17 utility-scale solar projects totalling 5.900 GW, enough to power 1.8 million American homes.

The 17 solar zones are here:

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