Interior Department's solar plan aims at environmentally-sound developments

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has released a plan to develop an environmentally responsible roadmap for solar development on public lands in the West. While the plan reduces the number of acres considered best suited for solar projects, it also provides companies with incentives for developing in the recommended locations.

The plan, known as the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), aims to concentrate the development of solar projects in sunny, flat areas near transmission lines that pose minimal threats to wildlife and cultural resources. The proposal affects public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

The revised plan slashes the number of solar energy “zones” in these states to 17 from the 24 proposed in the first version of the plan, released in December 2010. The zones’ total acreage was reduced to 285,000 acres from 677,000. Five sites in Nevada, four in Colorado, three in Utah, two each in California and Arizona, and one in New Mexico were identified as ideal for solar development.

While California has just two projects — both near the Arizona border in the southeastern part of the state — it has more than half the total acreage, with 153,627 acres. Nevada has the next-highest acreage at 60,395.

The changes were made after the Interior and Energy departments received more than 80,000 comments on the original plan from solar energy developers, conservationists and others.

Interior officials say that solar energy and transmission projects sited in solar energy zones will also enjoy faster and easier permitting. Developers will be able to site projects outside the recommended zones, but will likely face a longer permitting process, Salazar said.

Solar developers will be encouraged to build their projects within the zones because the work of identifying potential threats to wildlife and other resources has already been done, officials said.

Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said that siting flexibility and access to transmission are essential to the development of utility-scale solar projects. “There are some significant areas of concern regarding the viability of a solar-energy zone approach.”

Resch said the Solar PEIS will “set the rules of the game for project development over the next 20 years, and it is critical that we get it right.”

Fong Wan, senior vice president for energy procurement for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (NYSE: PCG), applauded the decision, saying that PG&E supports the process and believes it will provide more certainty for project development on the front end. “It is steps like these that will help increase the likelihood of successful projects, propelling the country toward our shared renewable energy goals.”

The plan’s stakeholders will now engage in a review of updates and provide commentary during a 90-day period starting on Oct. 28.

A megasession regarding renewable energy development and wildlife issues will be held at the Renewable Energy World Conference & Expo North America in Long Beach, Calif. on Feb. 16, 2012. The megasession will feature presentations from renewable energy developers, environmental groups, government entities and industry associations, focused on animal and habitat protection and solutions for achieving successful renewable projects while protecting wildlife.

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