New Solar Program for BLM

The detailed analysis, known as a Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, identifies 24 "solar energy zones" in six states that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said would be most suited "for environmentally sound, utility-scale concentrated solar energy production."

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a draft of its first ever Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development on public lands. While reading the 10,000 some odd page document will take many weeks of work with our conservation partners, we can say a few things about the document right off the bat.

The BLM is at a critical juncture – the agency currently doesn’t have a solar program and given that they own lands with some of the worlds’ best solar resources, they need one, and quick. With the PEIS the BLM has a terrific opportunity to build that program from the ground up and to make sure that Concentrating Solar Power development on our public lands is done right from the start – solar projects developed with careful planning up front, located in appropriate places that avoid sensitive wildlife areas and other vital natural resources, and configured in the least environmentally harmful ways.

We can’t repeat the mistakes of fossil fuel development on public lands as we build our clean energy future. Solar is a very new use of public lands, and the BLM has only the experience of permitting this year’s “fast track” projects to build on as it creates this new program. The "fast track" process provided important lessons about how we can do a better job at siting and developing future projects across the West that must be incorporated into the PEIS.

In addition, the PEIS must lay the groundwork for the BLM to do several key things:

* designate appropriate, low-conflict zones as open for development – maximizing use of areas that are already degraded and near existing infrastructure
* require that projects be built in these zones rather than scattered across the landscape
* close all other lands to development
* identify a target for solar energy generation on public lands that will guide planning and permitting on our public lands

The alternative to guided development is the status quo that has evolved over the past few years – individual project developers choose where they want to site projects and none of the benefits of guided development are realized, namely: limited development footprint, coordinated mitigation, ample access to electrical transmission lines, certainty for the industry, and more efficient environmental review and permitting.

"We think it provides a common-sense and flexible framework through which to grow our nation’s renewable-energy economy," Salazar told reporters Thursday in a conference call.

Under the 10,000-page plan, which is now subject to public comment for 90 days, developers would have a higher level of confidence that they could receive federal permits establishing solar ventures in specific areas in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Right now, there is a serious backlog of applications for projects dating to the George W. Bush administration. In the past three months, Interior has approved eight utility-scale solar projects in California and Nevada that will collectively generate 3,572 megawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 1 million homes. But there are 104 active solar applications pending at the Bureau of Land Management, covering 1 million acres, both inside and outside the proposed zones, that developers estimate could generate an additional 60,000 megawatts of power.

"There’ll be quite a bit of incentive for the companies to focus on development (in the zones)," said the bureau’s director, Bob Abbey, adding that he and his colleagues have tried to identify areas that are less prone to conflicts over environmental concerns, such as harm to endangered species or drains on local water supplies. "Smart planning up front will help reduce the potential for litigation and delays on future projects."

Companies that apply for permits in approved areas would have the advantage of a pre-prepared National Environmental Policy Act analysis that would accelerate the permitting process, according to Interior officials. A site-specific federal analysis would still take place.

At the moment, even federally approved projects face legal hurdles. On Wednesday, a federal judge stopped construction on the first utility-scale solar project on public land, on the grounds that Tessera Solar’s venture in Imperial County, Calif., might irreparably harm the cultural resources of a local American Indian tribe challenging the development.

In response to the court injunction in favor of the Quechan tribe, Tessera Solar Chief Executive Robert Lukefahr issued a statement Thursday saying, "This ruling sets back our ability to provide clean, renewable power to Southern California and delays our ability to bring jobs and economic development to a region with the highest unemployment rate in America."

Abbey estimated that Interior officials envision solar projects on bureau- managed land over the next two decades that could produce 24,000 megawatts of electricity.

Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch said in an interview that while he and his staff were still reviewing the document, "today’s announcement is a clear indication we have overcome a major hurdle toward developing solar projects on public lands."

Resch added that solar developers were anxious to build in the "sun-baked areas of the arid Southwest" that are not "too fragile for development."

"We solve environmental issues; we want to make sure we don’t create them," he said, adding that the designated zones will allow the industry "to tap into the world-class resources we have" for domestic solar power.

Environmental groups praised the proposal, though they cautioned against allowing developers to construct outside specifically identified zones. In addition to zones, the plan released Thursday also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development.

The Bureau of Land Management "has the authority and the opportunity to make the better choice and guide projects to zones," said Alex Daue, renewable- energy coordinator at the Wilderness Society.