Utility-scale solar zones redrawn in US southwest

The US DOI updated its plan to facilitate utility-scale solar development in 6 western states, encompassing 17 “solar energy zones” on ~285,000 acres that it deems “the areas best suited for utility-scale production of solar energy” in an effort to streamline the process for permitting large-scale solar projects on public lands.

October 31, 2011 — The US Department of Interior (DOI) updated its plan to facilitate utility-scale solar development in six western states (AZ, CA, CO, NV, NM, UT), encompassing 17 “solar energy zones” on ~285,000 acres that it deems “the areas best suited for utility-scale production of solar energy” in an effort to streamline the process for permitting large-scale solar projects on public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Department of Energy (DoE) published the initial Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) in Dec. 2010. After parsing >80,000 comments and additional data-gathering and consulting with other agencies and resource managers, the resulting supplement to the solar PEIS plan carves the original number of solar zones from 24 to 17 (seven removals across AZ/CA/NV/NM) and size from ~677,000 acres to just ~285,000 (cutting back eight proposed sites in CA/CO/NV/NM) — areas deemed to have “developmental constraints or serious resource conflicts.”

The new PEIS plan aims to better describe the process for identifying zones, including an analysis of transmission availability and potential resource conflicts, incentives for developers to site new projects in solar energy zones (e.g., greater certainty and shorter permitting times), and ongoing regional planning processes being used to identify additional solar energy zones. It also includes a variance process, to allow development of “well-sited projects” outside those zones on an additional 20M acres of public land.

The DoI said it remains committed to incorporating state-based planning efforts to establish additional zones, citing “an immediate need for additional SEZs [solar energy zones] in some states”: current examples include the Arizona Restoration Energy Design Program, and California’s West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation and California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. (The DoI points out it has approved 22 major renewable energy projects, including 13 solar sites, producing ~5GW of energy.)

“This Solar PEIS establishes for the first time a blueprint for landscape-level planning that will help facilitate smarter siting of solar energy projects […and] lays a solid foundation for an enduring, sustainable solar energy future for our nation,” said US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in the announcement.

“Tapping the vast potential of solar resources in the Western states will go a long way to diversifying the country’s energy portfolio and re-establishing our position as a clean energy leader in a global market worth trillions of dollars in the long term,” added US Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

A 90-day period for public comment will be followed by a period of more data-collection in spring 2012, and final environmental impact statement (EIS) in July and record of decision by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) around September 2012.

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