Plan for solar on U.S. public lands advances

Monday, October 15, 2012

The U.S. Department of the Interior has finalized its general assessment of the environmental impacts of developing solar electric generation on public lands in six western states.  Last Friday's issuance of a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) will expedite the permitting of solar energy projects in designated solar energy zones on federal land.

A view of the back a solar panel on public land in the Utah desert.
Part of the Obama administration's plan to encourage utility-scale solar energy development on federal lands, the finalization of the record of decision for the PEIS established an initial set of 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and  Utah.  (Refer to DOI's map to see the general location of the zones.)

These initial 17 zones cover about 285,000 acres of public lands, and were designated based on factors including environmental suitability and access to transmission lines.  The Interior Department projects that if fully built out, the designated zones could be home to up to 23,700 megawatts of solar energy, an amount sufficient to power about 7 million homes.

The approved solar plan also allows a case-by-case evaluation of solar projects on another 19 million acres in “variance” areas outside the designated zones.  At the same time, the plan excludes almost 79 million acres deemed "inappropriate for solar development based on currently available information."

Notably, the PEIS does not pre-approve any specific plan.  Each project proposed in the designated zones will still require its own environmental review and other permitting.  Nevertheless, the solar plan may facilitate significant development of solar energy projects on public lands in the western United States.

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