Interior Department sets aside millions of acres for solar power

The Obama administration on Tuesday announced its final plan for fast-tracking large-scale solar energy projects in a vast portion of the West, promising installations with enough wattage to power nearly 7 million homes over the next decade.

The “All Of The Above” program, the nation’s first comprehensive plan to develop solar power on public land, sets aside 285,000 acres that would have minimal impact on endangered wildlife and waters.

Applications for development in 17 solar-energy zones in California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah will move quickly because environmental impact studies have already been approved.

Another 19 million acres were identified for potential development, but applicants must pay for environmental impact studies that the government will consider, Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said.

“This is a huge milestone in our solar energy efforts,” Salazar said. “Today’s announcement serves as a roadmap for solar energy for decades to come.”

Discussions and studies for the plan began in 2009, when “there had been almost nothing happening,” Salazar said. Hundreds of permit applications were pending, he said, but no projects had been built or permitted.

A 30-day protest period must pass before Interior can adopt the plan. It will not govern projects that have already been approved or pending applications under the current rules, Salazar said.

Interior has approved 17 solar energy projects that will produce about 6,000 megawatts of energy that can power nearly 2 million homes, according to an agency statement.

The plan is a blueprint “for solutions across the country,” said David Danielson, assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable at the Energy Department. Energy will work to “break down market barriers to producin g solar power.”Environmental groups that had voiced concern about solar developments intruding on wildlife praised the administration for a plan that seeks to spare them.

“This is the first time the U.S. has had an actual program for solar development on public lands,” said Helen O’Shea, director of the western renewal energy project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It allows us to step beyond looking at the landscape and see where the impacts will be least.”

At least a dozen other groups endorsed the plan, including the Audubon Society and Southern California Edison electric utility.

“It makes all kinds of sense. If we can . . . get the benefit of clean energy without the cost to wildlife and natural resources, that’s a good thing,” said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at the Defenders of Wildlife.

“We’re hopeful that this detailed environmental analysis will dramatically speed the permitting process and bring more solar online to serve the American people,” said Rhone Resch, president and chief executive of the Solar Energy Industry Association. “The U.S. Southwest is home to some of the best solar resources in the world. It’s a region universally recognized for its enormous potential to enhance our energy security.”

Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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