Interior Department Scales Back Number Of Planned ‘Solar Energy Zones,’ Acreage

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By Ari Natter

The amount of federal land set aside for “solar energy zones,” where the development of large-scale solar projects would receive expedited treatment, would be dramatically reduced under an Interior Department plan released Oct. 27.

The revisions, laid out in the Supplement to the Solar Energy Development Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, would cut the number of zones from 24 to 17 and reduce the total acreage available for development from 677,000 acres to about 285,000 acres.

Those and other changes were made after the Interior Department received more than 80,000 comments on a draft version of the plan, released in December 2010, that identified land in six Western states considered best-suited for solar energy production.

“We received a lot of comments on the original draft and concerns on all sides about the way we would approach this,” Interior Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes said during a telephone news briefing with reporters that included Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other officials.

Environmental groups had urged the department to scale back the number of acres identified for solar development, while representatives of the solar industry requested that solar development be allowed outside designated zones (23 DEN A-6, 2/3/11).

The plan will be subject to a 90-day comment period. Interior said it expects to release a final version in 2012.

‘Resource Conflicts.'

According to the department, under the revised plan, several solar energy zones would be eliminated or “substantially reduced” in size because they were “found to have resource conflicts and/or development constraints.”

For instance, the Bullard Wash solar energy zone, a 7,239-acre swath of land in Maricopa County, Ariz., would be eliminated because of its potential impacts on soil resources, local habitats, military training, and grazing allotments, among other factors.

Others sites proposed for elimination included solar zones known as Iron Mountain and Pisgah in California, Delamar Valley and East Mormon Mountain in Nevada, and Mason Draw and Red Sands in New Mexico, according to the Interior Department.

The revised proposal included a variance process for developers who want to develop solar energy facilities outside solar zones, as well a “clear process for identifying new solar energy zones in the future,” according to the department.

Solar Industry Concern

The Solar Energy Industries Association, in a statement, said that while it is still reviewing details of the new proposal, “there are some significant areas of concern regarding the viability of a solar-energy zone approach.”

“The Solar [programmatic environmental impact statement] will set the rules of the game for project development over the next 20 years, and it is critical that we get it right,” Rhone Resch, president and chief executive officer of the association, said in an Oct. 27 statement.

“Siting flexibility and access to transmission are key to the financing and development of utility-scale solar power plants,” he said. “Both aspects must be reflected in the final PEIS.”

As proposed by the Interior Department in December 2010, areas in six Western states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah—would be selected as solar energy zones for which large-scale projects would receive expedited permitting and other preferential treatment.

“Those are the places we believe there is the greatest potential for solar energy development,” Salazar told reporters during the telephone news briefing. “Today, we take a giant step towards establishing a solar energy program that is one that is enduring and is sustainable for many years to come.”

Final Decision in 2012

The department expects to release a final solar programmatic environmental impact statement in July 2012, and expects to sign a Record of Decision about 60 days after the final PEIS is issued, the department said.

The Supplement to the Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement will be subject to a 90-day comment period following its publication in the Federal Register Oct. 28, the department said.

A coalition of environmental groups, utilities, transmission groups, and solar groups said in a statement Oct. 27 that they plan to review the plan and offer comment.

“We remain committed to working together to resolve differences and help the Department improve its proposed program, so that it provides a lasting framework that will yield benefits to our nation and meets our shared goals for clean energy while protecting our critical natural resources,” V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies, said in the statement.


The Supplement to the Solar Energy Development Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement is available at http://solareis.anl.gov/documents/supp/index.cfm.