Obama Administration Releases Final Solar Energy Program

. “We appreciate the extensive efforts of Secretaries Chu and Salazar and the Departments of Energy and Interior on the Solar PEIS and we look forward to developing our next generation of utility-scale concentrating solar power projects to provide utilities with clean, sustainable and reliable solar energy.”

The Departments of Interior and Energy today announced the long-awaited blueprint for solar energy development on public lands in six Western states.

The release of DOE’s and Interior’s final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for solar culminates a two-year public process that NRDC, fellow conservation groups, utilities and solar energy companies engaged in to advocate for a balanced, environmentally responsible national solar program.

The final solar program identifies 17 solar energy zones covering 285,000 square miles in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The area was cut down from an original 24 zones, some of which drew objections from wildlife and conservation groups, and generated more than 80,000 public comments.

Given that the initial draft PEIS was 10,000 pages long and its supplement stretched another 500-plus, it will likely take some time to closely review the final plan. We are hopeful that the plan will indeed be the lasting framework that we need for balancing our clean energy and natural resource protection goals.

As I blogged when the draft PEIS was released in 2010, this is Interior’s unique opportunity to build a solid program that’s “smart from the start—one that aims to site projects on public lands with the greatest possible care, NRDC has been able to support projects totaling more than 2,000 megawatts of clean power on public lands in California.

NRDC has long believed Interior should guide solar development to public land areas with low environmental and wildlife risk, high solar potential, and close to necessary infrastructure like transmission. We believe establishing such solar zones will ensure necessary solar projects are built faster and cheaper – and much better for the environment, solar developers, investors, and for consumers.

As my colleague Johanna Wald has repeatedly and eloquently noted, NRDC did not come to this place without great deliberation. Our decision to support solar development on public lands has been questioned by some, but we believe it is imperative that the nation transition quickly to a clean energy economy and this requires all the tools in our toolkit – from energy efficiency and rooftop solar to utility-scale solar projects. We believe this is the only way we have any hope of slowing the mounting damage from climate change, which poses one of the greatest threats to the same wildlife, wild lands and other resources the final PEIS must also strive to preserve.

I’m getting ready to do a lot of late night reading in the next few weeks, and I’m hopeful that Interior’s final PEIS will establish a critically needed roadmap that provides a balanced approach to solar development to protect wildlife and critical lands while tackling the climate change challenge and moving our nation closer to meeting our clean energy goals.
Helen O’Shea, Deputy Director, Western Renewable Energy Project, San Francisco.