On October 12, 2012, the Obama administration, through Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, finalized a program by signing a record of decision that will clear the way for utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in six western states. The details of this program are contained in a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for solar energy development, prepared by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). According to a BLM press release, the PEIS provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, incentives for development within those zones, and a process through which to consider additional zones and solar projects.

The solar PEIS establishes an initial set of 17 solar energy zones (SEZs), totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands, that will serve as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development, with the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes. If fully built out, projects in the designated areas could produce as much as 23,700 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power approximately seven million U.S. homes. The program also keeps the door open, on a case-by-case basis, for the possibility of carefully sited solar projects outside SEZs on about 19 million acres in “variance” areas. The program also includes a framework for regional mitigation plans, and to protect key natural and cultural resources, the program excludes a little less than 79 million acres that would be inappropriate for solar development based on currently available information. The BLM and DOE published a map detailing the various zones in the different states.

The signing of the record of decision follows the July release of the final PEIS, a comprehensive analysis that identified locations on BLM lands most suitable for solar energy development. These areas are characterized by excellent solar resources; access to existing or planned transmission; and relatively low conflict with biological, cultural, and historic resources.

According to a fact sheet also published this month, the program will provide the following components:

  • An initial set of 17 SEZs on 285,000 acres across six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah
  • A process for industry, the public, and other interested stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones; efforts already underway include California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and West Chocolate Mountains Renewable Energy Evaluation, Arizona’s Restoration Energy Design Project, and other local planning efforts in Nevada and Colorado
  • Strong incentives for development within zones, including faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies, and economic incentives
  • A clear process allowing for development of well-sited projects on approximately19 million acres outside the zones
  • Protection of natural and cultural resources by excluding 78.6 million acres from solar energy development
  • A set of design features (best practices) for solar energy development to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery
  • A framework for regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management (the first mitigation pilot for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone in Nevada is already underway)
  • Ongoing transmission planning efforts and support for more detailed system-level analyses of transmission needs, including through the Transmission Expansion Planning Policy Committee and the Western Electricity Coordination Council’s transmission study
  • Important feedback from interested stakeholders, including industry, conservationists, sportsmen, tribal representatives, and state and local governments (the BLM released the draft solar PEIS in December 2010 and in response to the more than 80,000 comments received from cooperating agencies and key stakeholders issued a supplement to the draft solar PEIS in October 2011 and the final PEIS in July 2012)

It remains to be seen whether the program is as clear, user-friendly, and responsive to environmental concerns as the press material indicates. Some within industry have been supportive, while others have been dubious.