More than150 years after the pioneers saddled their horses andsharpened their pickaxes for the frontier, the land of the AmericanWest is being rushed again—but this time it’s not for gold (or ManifestDestiny). After Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Senate majorityleader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced in late June federal initiatives to accelerate the development of solar power on Western public lands. Under review are 676,048 acres of land managed by the Bureau of Land Management—a Department of the Interioragency—and located in New Mexico, California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevadaand Utah. Salazar said he expected the new measures to hasten 13commercial-scale solar plants into construction by the end of nextyear, creating 50,000 jobs.
One such initiative will designate 24 tracts of land “solar energystudy areas,” which will be evaluated for their “environmental andresource suitability for large-scale solar energy production,”according to the DOI press release.It is a zoning measure whose goal is to “[allow for] a more efficientprocess for permitting and siting responsible solar development,” and,backed by the Obama Administration, is set to develop what Salazarcalls a new “engine for the clean-energy economy.”
Support for the program has been fairly strong amongenvironmentalists and industry observers alike—a consensus that seemsto be growing rarer as renewable energy gains traction—but, as isnearly inevitable with any behemoth federal project, green-mindedvoices have been raised in concern. More than half of the designated676,048 acres lie in California’s Mojave Desert region, an undevelopedswath of land that may be inhospitable to humans but is the habitat ofcreatures like the endangered desert tortoise, which the U.S. spent$100 million to save over the past ten years.
Even with the careful siting of solar arrays, “there aregoing to be conflicts with endangered species,” said Ileene Anderson,director of the public lands desert program for the Center forBiological Diversity.
Should development carry through as planned, the DOI estimates thatits “solar energy study areas” have the potential to support 100,000 MWof solar-power capacity, enough power to keep hundreds of millions ofhomes running. The solar hotspot potential of this western frontier,however, has been evident for a while—most of the best spots weresnapped up by enterprising solar developers over the past two years,and the BLM is already reviewing 158 lease applications for solarprojects covering 1.8 million acres.Still, it will likely be years before we lay eyes on a sun-poweredUtopia rising from desert sands—the DOI doesn’t expect to finishevaluating the solar zones until 2010.
Regardless of which side of the renewable energy fence you sit on, Ithink we can agree on one thing: measures like these are yet anotherreminder of how far solar power has come over the past couple of years.Although it still has a ways to go before reaching grid parity, solarpower is moving toward the finish line day by day, week by week.Whether you’re installing solar panels in Vermont or designing a solarthermal plant in New Mexico, you’ve added an indispensable step alongthe way.