Feds Propose 24 Solar Energy Zones

UPDATE: Thestory now has links to maps showing the prosed solar energy zones.Interior Secretary Ken Salazar treks to Las Vegas to announce a plan todedicate 670,000 acres on BLM land for solar power projects.

Thefederal government is proposing to set aside 670,000 acres on publicland and divide them into 24 energy zones to speed up solar energydevelopment, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Monday.

The move represented the first time the government is looking atdedicating land for solar energy projects, said Salazar at a pressconference in Las Vegas.

The energy zones are located on land overseen by the federal Bureauof Land Management in six western states: California, Nevada, Arizona,New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The zones would be suitable for projectsat 10 megawatts or larger, the interior department said. Maps of thezones will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday (see themaps for Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah). Together, the zones could accommodate solar farms with a total of nearly 100 gigawatts in generation capacity. 

"Today marks the beginning of a historic effort in which the UnitedStates of America finally captures the power of the sun to power theenergy needs of America in our homes and businesses and create jobs forpeople in America," Salazar said.

Solar energy companies would be glad to see a more efficientpermitting process. Many of them have complained that the currentprocess is too slow and could take nearly two years to get approval(see Pros and Cons of Putting Solar Thermal Projects on Private Land). The permitting process also typically involves state and other local agencies, and that also could lengthen the review. 

The BLM, for its part, has been largely understaffed to handle the rush of solar energy projects in recent years (see The Rush for Gigawatts In the Desert Explodes).

The BLM plans to carry out the environmental impact analyses of the24 zones to see if they would be suitable for large-scale solarprojects, and complete them by the end of 2010. The public will get achance to comment before the final designation is made. 

This effort would contribute to a larger and ongoing initiative bythe BLM to create what’s known as the Solar Programmatic EnvironmentalImpact Statement (PEIS). The BLM started working on the PEIS last year, and this broad environmental and economic impact analysis covers all of the six states mentioned above.

The PEIS would serve as the basis for evaluating each proposed solarenergy project. The document would address key and more commonenvironmental issues and save some of the time and money the BLM andeach project developer would otherwise have to spend on analyzing everyproject. It should enable speedier negotiations over what a projectdeveloper must do to mitigate environmental impact. 

The federal agency isn’t stopping its project reviewing processwhile it carries out the environmental studies of the proposed energyzones and completes the PEIS. There already are 35 proposed solarprojects within the 24 energy zones, Salazar said.

Overall, the BLM is handling 158 active solar energy applicationsthat cover 1.8 million acres. The 158 projects would have a generationcapacity of 97 gigawatts, which would be enough to power 29 millionhomes, the interior department said. But the BLM hasn’t issued thefinal permits for any of the solar projects. Projects proposed byBrightSource Energy in Oakland, Calif., and Stirling Energy Systems inScottsdale, Ariz., are the farthest along in the review process. 

The BLM will continue to accept new applications for areas withinand outside of the energy zones, but will base its review of the newapplications on the PEIS. 

The government selected the proposed 24 energy zones based on theareas’ solar resources and proximity to roads and transmission lines,among other criteria. The department bypassed national parks and landused by the defense department, as well as "sensitive lands, wildernessand other high-conservation-value lands as well as lands withconflicting uses."

Creating these energy zones isn’t likely to prevent opposition fromenvironmental and community groups over the kind of solar energyprojects that are under consideration.

Those projects typically cover hundreds of acres in the desert, andsome require grading of the land and water for cooling and cleaningsolar energy equipment. Water, of course, is a precious commodity inthe desert.

There are 35 proposed solar projects within the 24 energy zones,Salazar said. Overall, the BLM is handling 158 active solar energyapplications that cover 1.8 million acres. The 158 projects would havea generation capacity of 97 gigawatts, which would be enough to power29 million homes, the interior department said.

The BLM plans to set up offices in Nevada, Arizona, California andWyoming that would expedite the project evaluation process. The firstoffice would be located in Las Vegas.



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