Federal Government Streamlines Solar Planning

Rebecca Watson, assistant secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, announced a new land-management policy designed to encourage the development of solar energy resources on America’s public lands.

Watson made the announcement during the Solar Power 2004 conference in San Francisco, California. The new Solar Energy Development Policy establishes a framework for land managers to use in processing right-of-way applications for solar energy development projects on public lands administered by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management. “The Solar Energy Development Policy is a nationwide framework for authorizing commercial solar facilities on public lands,” Watson said. “This is a way for the BLM to be proactive in responding to changes in solar technology while protecting the environment. It also supports an initiative by the Western Governors Association and the Department of Energy to explore the feasibility of developing 30,000 MW of clean energy in the West by 2015.” Watson reminded the solar power industry leaders attending the conference that while domestic production of renewable energy is growing, experts forecast that renewable energy alone cannot fill the gap between domestic energy production and demand in the foreseeable future or in the next 20 years. Renewable sources supply 2 percent of our energy, and that’s expected to grow to 10 percent by 2025 according the Energy Information Administration. The Department of the Interior has established a record over the last three years of promoting renewable energy development on public lands, and it manages one in every five acres of land in the country. More than 261 million acres of land, primarily in the West, are managed by the BLM. Unlike parks and wildlife refuges, BLM-managed lands are managed for multiple uses, including fossil fuel and renewable energy development. Although solar energy currently represents only a small fraction of the nation’s supply of electricity, the potential for solar energy to contribute a greater share is significant, particularly in the Southwest. Watson noted that at the national level, federal agencies are funding research, purchasing and installing green power, providing loans, creating the legal infrastructure for renewable development and identifying renewable resources on federal lands. A 2003 BLM and the U.S. Department of Energy report assessed the potential for renewable energy resources on public lands managed by the BLM in 11 Western states. The report identified areas in Arizona, Southern California, Nevada and New Mexico as the most promising areas for solar energy development on public lands. Parts of Texas, Utah and Colorado also have excellent solar resources, according to the report. “The report shows that public lands hold abundant opportunities for renewable energy development,” Watson said. “With this new policy, we are getting ahead of the curve by implementing policies and procedures before we have solar energy applications in hand. This will enable us to work more effectively with applicants to facilitate and encourage environmentally responsible solar energy development.” The BLM will process applications for commercial solar energy facilities as right-of-way authorizations under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the law that establishes BLM authority over the public lands. All concentrating solar power systems and photovoltaic installations must comply with the planning, environmental, National Environmental Policy Act review and right-of-way requirements that the BLM uses to evaluate all proposed commercial uses of public lands. The policy also encourages the installation of renewable power sources, including solar systems, at BLM facilities. “The 2003 report identified the top 25 BLM areas with high solar energy development potential,” Watson said. “I have requested the BLM use this information in current and future land-use planning to prepare for development of solar energy on public lands.” He went on to say that planning is the precursor to all activity on BLM lands. If the potential impacts of solar energy development are not addressed during the public process of developing a land use plan, BLM cannot subsequently consider a solar development proposal without a timely and costly amendment to the land-use plan. “Planning now puts us in a position to respond more quickly to solar energy development,” Watson said. The BLM Solar Energy Development Land Authorization Policy is fully outlined in an instructional memorandum available online at the link below.
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