On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Department of Energy (DOE) jointly released a Final Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Solar PEIS) for a new program to facilitate development of utility-scale solar energy production on lands owned by the Federal government. The Solar PEIS identifies 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) totaling about 285,000 acres in six western States (California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado) as priority areas for utility-scale solar development because they have excellent solar resources, are close to transmission lines and would not create substantial conflicts with natural resources. The Solar PEIS also identifies other “variance” areas where such projects might be considered areas excluded due to environmental concerns. It also establishes a series of best management practices and mitigation measures likely to be imposed by BLM and DOE on all solar projects approved or financed in part by those agencies.
The primary component of the program analyzed in the Solar PEIS is the amendment of BLM land use plans to prioritize and encourage development of utility-scale solar projects in the SEZs. Solar energy facilities proposed for such lands would be expressly permitted by the BLM plans, thereby avoiding the need for an applicant to seek amendment of the applicable plan when a solar facility is proposed. The program also standardizes the project design features, management practices and mitigation measures that developers can expect to be imposed on a new solar energy project.
Although the Solar PEIS establishes these priorities and standards and analyzes the general scope of environmental impacts associated with the program, its approval by BLM and DOE will not eliminate the need for a separate decision on whether to authorize any individual solar energy project in conformance with the applicable land use plan. The approval of the Solar PEIS also will not eliminate the need for a site-specific environmental review for any future project pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (42 U.S.C. § 4321 et seq., NEPA), although future projects proposed in SEZs will almost certainly be able to tier off the analysis in the Solar PEIS.
In total, the BLM and DOE estimate that a total of 23,700 megawatts of solar energy production can be expected from the 17 SEZs and variance areas, which is enough to power 7 million homes.