DOI, DOE Finalize Environmental Guidelines For Solar Energy Development On Public Lands


The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), has released the final programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for solar energy development in six southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

The final solar PEIS represents a major step forward in the permitting of utility-scale solar energy projects on public lands in the western U.S. The PEIS will serve as a road map for solar energy development by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, the fewest resource conflicts and incentives for development within those zones.

According to the DOI, the blueprint's comprehensive analysis will make for faster, better permitting of large-scale solar projects on public lands.

"This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America's public lands," says DOI Secretary Ken Salazar." This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades."

The PEIS planning effort has focused on identifying locations on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands that are most suitable for solar energy development. These areas are characterized by excellent solar resources, good energy transmission potential and relatively low conflict with biological, cultural and historic resources, the DOI explains.

The final PEIS identifies 17 solar energy zones (SEZ), spanning about 285,000 acres of public lands, as priority areas for utility-scale solar development, with the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes. The blueprint also allows for utility-scale solar development on approximately 19 million acres in"variance," areas lying outside of identified SEZ.

In total, the final PEIS estimates a total development of 23.7 GW from the 17 zones and the variance areas – enough renewable energy to power approximately 7 million U.S. households.

Elements of the final solar PEIS include the following:

  • Establishes an initial set of 17 SEZ on 285,000 acres across six Western states;
  • Outlines a process for the industry, the public and other interested stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones;
  • Includes strong incentives for development within zones, including faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies and economic incentives;
  • Sets a clear process that allows for development of well-sited projects on approximately19 million acres outside the zones;
  • Protects natural and cultural resources by excluding 78 million acres from solar energy development;
  • Identifies design features for solar energy development to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of solar energy; and
  • Establishes a framework for regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management (the first mitigation pilot for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone is already under way).

In support of more detailed system-level analyses of transmission needs, the BLM is engaged in ongoing transmission planning efforts, including through the Transmission Expansion Planning Policy Committee and the Western Electricity Coordination Council's transmission study.

The July 27 Federal Register notice of availability for the final PEIS will begin a 30-day protest period, after which Salazar may consider adopting the document through a record of decision.

The BLM released the draft solar PEIS in December 2010, and in response to the over 80,000 comments received from cooperating agencies and key stakeholders, issued a supplement to the draft PEIS in October 2011.

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which was among the groups that submitted comments on the draft PEIS, praised the DOI's efforts.

"We applaud the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy for undertaking this major effort to tackle the process for solar development on public lands," SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch said in a statement." We're hopeful that this detailed environmental analysis will dramatically speed the permitting process and bring more solar online to serve the American people.

"The PEIS identifies a process that will accommodate well-sited solar power plants outside of designated solar energy zones, and protects the rights of pending solar applications," he added." The Bureau of Land Management must ensure pending projects do not get bogged down in more bureaucratic process."

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