Obama administration unveils blueprint for solar energy development in West

This 4-acre rooftop solar array powers the freezers at the United Natural Foods distribution center in Rocklin, Calif.
This 4-acre rooftop solar array powers the freezers at the United Natural Foods distribution center in Rocklin, Calif. (By Court Mast Via Bloomberg News)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 4:10 PM

The Obama administration issued proposed guidelines Thursday for solar development on public lands in the West, a move that could speed renewable energy projects that have been mired in environmental controversy.

The detailed analysis, known as a Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, identifies 24 "solar energy zones" in six states that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said would be most suited "for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production."

"We think it provides a common-sense and flexible framework through which to grow our nation's renewable energy economy," Salazar told reporters in a conference call.

Under the 10,000-page plan, which is now subject to public comment for 90 days, developers would have a higher level of confidence that they could receive federal permits establishing solar ventures in specific areas in states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Right now, there is a serious backlog of applications for projects dating back to the George W. Bush administration. In the past three months, Interior has approved eight utility-scale solar projects in California and Nevada that will collectively generate 3,572 megawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 1 million homes. But there are 104 active solar applications pending at the Bureau of Land Management, covering 1 million acres, both inside and outside the proposed zones, that developers estimate could generate an additional 60,000 megawatts of power.

"There'll be quite a bit of incentive for the companies to focus on development" in the zones, said the bureau's director, Bob Abbey, adding that he and his colleagues have tried to identify areas that are less prone to conflicts over environmental concerns, such as harm to endangered species or drains on local water supplies. "Smart planning up front will help reduce the potential for litigation and delays on future projects."

Companies that apply for permits in approved areas would have the advantage of a pre-prepared National Environmental Policy Act analysis that would accelerate the permitting process, according to Interior officials. A site-specific federal analysis would still take place.

At the moment, even federally approved projects face legal hurdles. On Wednesday, a federal judge stopped construction on the first utility-scale solar project on public land, on the grounds that Tessera Solar's venture in Imperial County, Calif., might irreparably harm the cultural resources of a local American Indian tribe challenging the development.

In response to the court injunction in favor of the Quechan tribe, Tessera Solar chief executive Robert Lukefahr issued a statement Thursday saying, "This ruling sets back our ability to provide clean, renewable power to Southern California and delays our ability to bring jobs and economic development to a region with the highest unemployment rate in America."

Abbey estimated that Interior officials envision solar projects on bureau-managed lands over the next two decades could produce 24,000 megawatts of electricity.

Solar Energy Industries Association President Rhone A. Resch said in an interview that while he and his staff were still reviewing the document, "today's announcement is a clear indication we have overcome a major hurdle toward developing solar projects on public lands."

Resch added that solar developers were anxious to build in the "sun-baked areas of the arid Southwest" that are not "too fragile for development."

"We solve environmental issues; we want to make sure we don't create them," he said, adding that the designated zones will allow the industry "to tap into the world-class resources we have" for domestic solar power.

Environmental groups praised the proposal, though they cautioned against allowing developers to construct outside specifically identified zones. In addition to zones, the plan released Thursday also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development.

The Bureau of Land Management "has the authority and the opportunity to make the better choice and guide projects to zones," said Alex Daue, renewable-energy coordinator at the Wilderness Society.

Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that while a comprehensive blueprint was "an important step" in making sure renewable energy happens in the right areas, "ensuring that development actually occurs in those places that are most suitable is the vital next step."

"Those of us who live in the West are all too familiar with the impacts of runaway fossil fuel development on federal lands with little regard for its effects on wildlife, recreation, and clean water and air," he added.

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