Last week, the Obama administration—through the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Energy—released the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for an initial set of 17 solar energy zones on 285,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) across six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The publication of the PEIS comes after two years of review since publication of the Draft PEIS in December 2010, including the review of more than 80,000 comments received from cooperating agencies, environmental groups, and other key stakeholders.

The 17 zones were chosen because they are believed to be the most suitable for utility-scale solar projects due to potential solar resources, strong energy transmission potential, minimal interference with natural and cultural resources, and existing incentives for development. If fully developed, these 17 zones have the potential to produce upwards of 5,900 megawatts, which, according to the Department of the Interior, could power up to 1.8 million homes. The PEIS also provides for utility-scale development on nearly 19 million acres in variance areas that are outside of identified zones, which, when added to the potential output of the 17 zones, could support upwards of 23,700 megawatts, or enough energy to power seven million homes. Also of note, the PEIS includes a process for interested parties and stakeholders to propose new zones or the expansion of existing zones.

The July 27 Federal Register Notice of Availability or the Final PEIS begins a 30-day protest period, after which Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar may consider adopting the document through a Record of Decision.

The adoption of the PEIS demonstrates the Obama administration’s focus on renewable energy, even in an election year. Prior to 2009, no solar projects had been allowed to develop on public lands, thus making the release of the PEIS a major step forward in potential use of public lands for the development of renewable projects. With the forthcoming election, it remains to be seen whether this focus on renewable energy will extend beyond November 2012. With that being said, the PEIS is expected to help streamline large projects and protect pending solar applications—goals which both political parties have publicly embraced. Additionally, as the use of public lands does not in and of itself mark a major financial commitment to the renewable industry beyond access, it seems likely that a new administration would not push back against this development. At a minimum, the release of the PEIS is a win for those seeking to develop large-scale renewable projects and demonstrates the government’s focus on further developing the renewable market.