U.S. Selects Solar Power Zones to Streamline Approvals

The U.S. government gave preliminary approval for solar energy projects at 24 sites on federal land in six states, a step that may allow energy companies develop them sooner.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the U.S. Energy Department announced the “solar energy zones” during a conference call today.

The decision would create an environmental-impact evaluation before developers apply for permission to build and may speed the application process, Salazar said. Early approval could also identify the best use of existing transmission lines, he said.

“We are working hard to rapidly and responsibly develop renewable energy on public lands,” Salazar said. The sites listed in the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement may support up to 24,000 megawatts of solar power on 214,000 acres, he said.

Salazar began a similar study last month of optimal areas to place wind turbines off the Atlantic Coast, resolving potential conflicts with state and environmental regulators over shipping lanes, bird migration paths and tourism.

BrightSource, Solar Trust

The streamlined process for approving solar parks on federal lands may help developers such as BrightSource Energy Inc. of Oakland, California, and Tessera Solar, a division of NTR Plc of Dublin, Ireland, which are building some of the 1,800 megawatts of projects approved by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in the past two months.

“This is another step in the right direction,” said Bill Keegan, a spokesman for Solar Trust of America, which through its Solar Millennium LLC unit is developing a 500-megawatt solar thermal power plant on the bureau’s land in Riverside County, California. A “systematic review” should help ensure that development isn’t “endangering species,” he said.

Solar Trust is a joint venture of Solar Millennium AG, an Erlangen, Germany-based maker of parabolic solar-power equipment, and Ferrostaal AG, an Essen, Germany-based engineering company.

Solar Trust’s Palen project was granted a license by California regulators yesterday.

Wilderness Society

Federal agencies evaluated 675,000 acres for potential solar development in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The agency had announced the locations in July. Environmental groups objected to some of the sites, saying they are too close to national parks or could endanger sensitive wildlife populations.

The Wilderness Society studied the 24 areas initially suggested by the BLM and this month and identified two that aren’t suitable for development, said Alex Daue, a spokesman for the society.

One is the 110,000-acre Iron Mountain zone in California, located between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert National Preserve.

“A couple of the zones are inappropriate for large-scale solar development,” Daue said in a telephone interview. “Iron Mountain should be taken off their map.”

The Wilderness Society plans to work with other environmental groups and the Interior Department to promote development at the solar zones it considers best suited for large-scale energy plants, Daue said. It will do so during a 90-day comment period that begins when the document is published in the federal register, he said.

“We support solar development on most of the zones and we want the BLM to ensure projects are built within those zones,” Daue said.


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