The U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as part of the Solar Energy Program, recently approved the establishment of a new Renewable Energy Evaluation Area (REEA) in California's Imperial Valley. The West Chocolate Mountains REEA creates a new Solar Energy Zone (SEZ), which is part of President Obama's "administration's efforts to facilitate solar energy development by identifying areas in six southwestern states with high solar potential, few resource conflicts, and access to existing or planned transmission." This REEA contemplates "[p]otential development of up to 3,456 megawatts of renewable energy within the REEA (3,306 megawatts of solar power and up to 150 megawatts of geothermal power)."
The Western Solar Plan, approved in October 2012, created 17 SEZs in six southwestern states with incentives for development within those zones and a process for considering additional zones. The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy development is a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting in (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah) by establishing SEZs with access to existing or planned transmission, incentives for development within those SEZs, and a process through which to consider additional SEZs and solar projects.
BLM defines a SEZ "as an area well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy, where the BLM will prioritize solar energy and associated transmission infrastructure development." A discussion of the criteria used to identify SEZs is provided in Section 126.96.36.199 of the Draft Solar PEIS.
BLM will identify new SEZs in accordance with the Identification Protocol for New or Expanded SEZs. When considering whether to identify new or expanded SEZs, BLM, in most situations, the SEZs should be relatively large areas that provide highly suitable locations for utility-scale solar energy development, and locations where solar energy development is economically and technically feasible, there is good potential for connecting new electricity-generating plants to the transmission distribution system and there is generally low resource conflict. The sequential process for identifying new SEZs includes assessing the demand for new or expanded SEZs, establishing technical and economic suitability , applying environmental, cultural, and other screening criteria, and analyzing proposed SEZs . The four-step process is to occur at least once every 5 years.
The West Chocolate Mountains REEA is the third SEZ in California and brings the national total to 19. The 19 REEAs include:
- Afton SEZ