U.S. Creates 17 Zones for ‘Faster’ Solar-Farm Development

U.S. Creates Zones for ‘Faster, Smarter’ Solar Development
Solar Two Project in the Mojave Desert, Calif. By completing environmental impact statements in advance, the Interior Department is encouraging developers to plan solar farms in certain areas. Photographer: Lowell Georgia

The U.S. Interior Department identified 17 zones of public lands in six western states as “priority areas” for solar development, where proposed projects will be rapidly approved.

The zones, in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, total about 285,000 acres (115,000 hectares) of public land, and the agency estimated they may eventually be used for about 23.7 gigawatts of power-generating capacity, according to a statement today. More than half of the area, about 154,000 acres, is in California.

By completing environmental impact statements in advance, the Interior Department is encouraging developers to plan solar farms in the zones. The agency is also offering faster and easier permitting, better mitigation strategies and economic incentives, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said on a conference call today.

The plan will lead to “faster, smarter and better” permitting procedures and is a “significant milestone” for President Barack Obama’s administration, Salazar said.

“When we came on board, no attention had been paid by the prior administration to capture the power of the sun,” he said. “If we continue in this direction we are in, I have no doubt the U.S. will lead the world.”

National Goals

“Renewable energy development on federal lands is essential to reaching our national clean energy goals,” Arthur Haubenstock, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Oakland, California-based solar-thermal project developer BrightSource Energy Inc., said in a separate statement released by the Natural Resources Defense Council, BrightSource and several other developers and environmental groups.

Since 2009, the agency has approved 17 solar farms on public lands that will eventually total 5.9 gigawatts of capacity once built, including BrightSource’s 392 megawatt Ivanpah project in California’s Mojave desert that will be completed in 2013.

In addition to the zones, the agency established a process for proposing renewable-energy projects on about 19 million acres of public lands outside the zones. It also identified 78 million acres of land that can’t be used for power projects.

This is the first time the government has created a plan for developing solar resources on public lands, Helen O’Shea, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview. “There hasn’t been a big picture or strategy on where to put those projects.” O’Shea is the director of the San Francisco-based environmental group’s Western Renewable Energy Project.

The solar zones will prioritize lower-conflict proposals. “It’s an idea we think is really smart,” O’Shea said. “It’s our expectation and hope that it provides more certainty for solar developers.”

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