Interior finalizes zone-based solar plan
Written byPHIL TAYLOR, E&E News PM
The Obama administration today finalized a sweeping new plan to accelerate development of commercial solar projects on public lands in the Southwest, pointing developers to areas with the fewest cultural and environmental conflicts.
The plan, which provides incentives for projects on more than a quarter-million acres of "solar energy zones" in six states while allowing development on an additional 19 million acres, is a "huge milestone" in the administration's push to expand carbon-free energy, said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Solar developers will benefit from "faster, better and smarter permitting," Salazar said. The plan also protects important cultural and biological resources and establishes a framework for regional mitigation plans, monitoring and adaptive management, he added.
Industry and conservation groups praised the effort, though few had yet read the agency's final programmatic environmental impact statement, which is more than 3,000 pages long.
"It's hard to overstate what a significant milestone this is for our administration," Salazar told reporters on a conference call today.
Despite a string of high-profile bankruptcies in the solar industry and increased scrutiny from Congress, the Obama administration remains bullish about the industry's future on public lands.
Interior today said it expects roughly 24,000 megawatts of solar power to be built on public lands, enough to power 7 million American homes, though it did not indicate a timeline. While several thousand megawatts of renewable energy have been permitted on public lands under the Obama administration, only 50 MW of solar are currently online, said Steve Black, counselor to the secretary.
But agency officials, industry, conservationists and sportsmen today said the plan provides a sustainable road map over the coming decades to reduce conflicts and increase certainty for all stakeholders.
The plan identifies 17 solar energy zones covering about 285,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, where solar resources are high and potential environmental conflicts are low. Companies that develop in the zones will benefit from financial incentives, lower planning costs, faster permitting and fewer environmental lawsuits, supporters said.
The plan also allows utility-scale solar development on roughly 19 million acres of "variance" areas outside the zones. Roughly 78 million acres have been excluded from future solar development.
"We're very clear that we expect projects to be built in variance areas," said Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes.
The plan also establishes a framework for regional mitigation plans, including an initial pilot project for the Dry Lake zone north of Las Vegas.
In addition, it finalizes a process for identifying future solar energy zones, including efforts already under way with California's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation Area and Arizona's Restoration Energy Design Project.
The plan drew support from the Solar Energy Industries Association and the Large-Scale Solar Association.
"We're hopeful that this detailed environmental analysis will dramatically speed the permitting process and bring more solar online to serve the American people," Rhone Resch, CEO of SEIA, said in a statement.
"The [programmatic environmental impact statement] 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," Resch added. "The Bureau of Land Management must ensure pending projects do not get bogged down in more bureaucratic process."
Arthur Haubenstock, vice president of regulatory affairs at BrightSource Energy Inc., said the sun-baked public lands that dominate the Southwest will be critical to reaching national clean energy goals.
The company is developing the 370 MW Ivanpah concentrating solar project on BLM lands in the Mojave Desert and was the highest bidder in an auction last month for a yet-to-be-constructed California solar power project once owned by the bankrupt Solar Trust of America LLC (Greenwire, June 22).
"We appreciate the extensive efforts of Secretaries [Steven] Chu [of the Energy Department] 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," he said.
Steve Belinda, senior energy adviser for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), praised the agency's efforts to engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders, including sportsmen.
"They followed a process as it should be," he said. "The more voices, the more diversity, the more input you have on the front end, the better your decisions are going to be."
Belinda said sportsmen will watch closely how the agency addresses the loss of wildlife habitat that is likely to occur with development of commercial solar plants, which typically consume larger amounts of land on a per-megawatt basis.
"There's going to have to be training," he said. "There's going to have to be a dialogue that happens between the energy companies and the conservation community, and there's going to have to be trust in relationships built over a long period of time for this to work."
The group Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, which includes TRCP, the National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, said the final plan is vastly improved from earlier drafts, praising its mitigation framework and adaptive management strategy.
"These changes -- which include addressing habitat fragmentation and connectivity issues, refining solar zone acres, and ultimately excluding approximately 80 million acres of valuable fish and wildlife habitat from what was proposed in the original draft -- should help facilitate domestic renewable energy development and minimize conflicts over public lands management, all while ensuring the responsible cultivation of our shared natural resources," said Ed Arnett, director of TRCP's Center for Responsible Energy Development.
The coalition also praised BLM's plan to move beyond a policy of addressing energy development on a project-by-project basis.
"To capitalize on this success, it is imperative that this new policy include direction for successful implementation," said Brad Powell, Western energy director for Trout Unlimited. "It must provide greater certainty for the energy industry as well as for sportsmen, identifying places that will not be developed in the near future -- as well as areas that will require mitigation measures to reduce impacts to fish and wildlife, hunting and angling, and our valuable recreation-based economy."
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