Bureau of Land Management to develop three solar energy plants in Arizona

A draft plan on the solar potential of federal land identifies three Arizona sites encompassing nearly 14,000 acres as highly suitable for energy development. The plan, which covers six western states, is designed to ensure that renewable energy is developed in a smart and efficient way, said Eddie Arreola, supervisory renewable energy project manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Arizona.

“The whole intent of the plan is to develop strategies to promote solar power development in the state,” Arreola said. “We also want to find the best way to manage that renewable energy responsibly.”

The three proposed Solar Energy Zones are located on BLM land in western Arizona. One is roughly 25 miles southwest of Buckeye, another around 25 miles northwest of Wickenburg and another along U.S. 60 about 10 miles west of Vicksburg.

Those zones were deemed most suitable when considering all possible drawbacks, including wildlife habitat, water usage, air quality, soil quality and tribal concerns, said Lane Cowger, a BLM renewable energy project manager in Arizona.

“There are so many different resources that needed to be addressed,” Cowger said. “Water in particular was a very serious concern.” The plan, called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, is the subject of public meetings in Arizona this week, one in Phoenix on Tuesday and another in Tucson on Wednesday.

The BLM spent two years conducting a general evaluation of 4 million acres in Arizona that were deemed to be suitable for solar power development. Its recommendations include suggested solar technologies considered appropriate for each site.

“Certain sites are not suitable to concentrated solar power technology which requires more available water, while they are still open to photovoltaic panels which don’t require as much water,” Cowger said. Cowger said the BLM would continue looking for more Arizona land that may be appropriate for solar development.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has required utilities it regulates to get 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Professor Martin Pasqualetti of Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning said the three Solar Energy Zones represent only a beginning to a statewide commitment to clean energy.

“This is a very small amount of land, perhaps too small,” Pasqualetti said. “If we want to move toward a solar future, and we’ve found that Arizona is one of the best solar resources, how do we expect to get there when so much land is off limits?”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, agreed with the three site recommendations as well as the process that led to them. “We are all for renewable energy, but it needs to be appropriately sited,” Bahr said. “We’re happy that the Bureau of Land Management is looking at a better way to approach solar projects by looking to identify areas up front.”

Bahr noted that the site southwest of Buckeye could habitat used by the endangered Sonoran Desert bald eagle and southwestern willow flycatcher, but she said any conflicts could be resolved during the application process.

“There are small things that will need to be adjusted,” Bahr said. “In some of the Solar Energy Zones there are some species that are affected, but those things would be worked out and adjustments can be made later.”

The BLM’s Cowger said that doing the site assessments would expedite the application process by allowing energy developers to apply for projects without guesswork or having to conduct vast amounts of research.

“Developers will still have to come and apply, but we’re making some of the easy calls,” he said.

Proposed zones:

– Brenda (Lake Havasu/La Paz), 3,878 acres, along U.S. 60 about 10 miles west of Vicksburg.

– Bullard Wash (Hassayampa/Yavapai), 7,239 acres, around 25 miles northwest of Wickenburg.

– Gillespie (Lower Sonoran/Maricopa) 2,618 acres, about 25 miles southwest of Buckeye.