New DOI Initiative Aims To Facilitate Permitting Of Large-Scale Solar Projects On Public Lands

U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ken Salazar has announced a supplement to the federal plan to facilitate responsible utility-scale solar development on public lands in six Western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

According to the DOI, the revised plan – the Supplement to the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development (solar PEIS) – expands the DOI's work to establish meaningful solar energy zones with transmission solutions and incentives for solar energy development within those zones.

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

To ensure that proposed solar energy zones are located in appropriate areas, the supplement to the plan sets forth a more complete description of the process for identifying zones, including an analysis of transmission availability and potential resource conflicts.

It also describes in more detail the incentives for developers to site new projects in solar energy zones – including greater certainty and shorter permitting times – and identifies ongoing regional planning processes that are being used to identify additional solar energy zones.

After analyzing comments on the draft solar PEIS, which the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) developed with the Department of Energy and published on Dec. 17, 2010, the BLM has modified its preferred alternative to include 17 solar energy zones, totaling about 285,000 acres potentially available for development within the zones. The BLM refined or removed zones that had development constraints or serious resource conflicts.

The modified preferred alternative also establishes a variance process, going forward, that will allow the development of well-sited projects outside of solar energy zones on an additional 20 million acres of public land. BLM priority projects that are already being processed will not be subject to the proposed new variance process.

The supplement makes clear that the DOI's solar program will incorporate other, state-based planning efforts to establish additional solar energy zones. The supplement also makes clear that there is opportunity for the industry, the public and interested stakeholders to propose additional zones for consideration.

Despite the DOI's efforts, Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone Resch expressed concerns about the new plan.

"While we are still reviewing all of the details in this proposal, there are some significant areas of concern regarding the viability of a solar energy zone approach," he said in a statement." Siting flexibility and access to transmission are key to the financing and development of utility-scale solar power plants. Both aspects must be reflected in the final PEIS.

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