The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has approved three major renewable energy projects. Two have been sited in California, and another is sited in Nevada. The two California projects are solar energy facilities. The McCoy Solar Energy Project is a 750-megawatt photovoltaic solar facility that would be one of the largest solar projects in the world. A 12.5-mile generation transmission line would connect the project to Southern California Edison’s Colorado River Substation. The Desert Harvest Solar Farm is a 150-megawatt photovoltaic facility. The project also includes an on-site substation and 230-kilovolt line to the Red Bluff Substation, which will connect the project to the Southern California Edison regional transmission grid. Both projects will be located in California’s Riverside East Solar Energy Zone (SEZ), one of 18 such zones on land held by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the DOI. The Nevada-based project is the Searchlight Wind Energy Project, a 200-megawatt project that will be located on BLM land about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

The two California solar projects, approved on March 13, 2013, add to the DOI’s progress in furthering the Obama Administration’s goals on solar energy which were articulated in the Department’s Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (Solar PEIS).

In January, the BLM approved a new SEZ in Arizona. Known as the Agua Caliente SEZ, this area opens up 2,550 more acres of BLM land to be used for utility-scale solar energy development under the Solar PEIS, which was approved and adopted as amended by a Record of Decision (ROD) on October 12, 2012.

The Agua Caliente SEZ is located approximately 120 miles south east of Phoenix and is part of the Yuma Resources Management Plan (RMP). The BLM chose this location for its proximity to transmission lines or systems, roads and infrastructure. The SEZ also has known environmental or cultural constraints that have been deemed acceptable for purposes of solar development.

Right of Way (ROW) applications for solar energy projects in the Agua Caliente SEZ will undergo a site-specific environmental review in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, ROW applicants will be allowed to rely on the findings in the BLM’s environmental analysis of the SEZ published in its Restoration Design Energy Project EIS (January 2013) by tiering the site-specific environmental reviews off of that EIS. Through its environmental review, the BLM has already determined areas where solar programs are likely to have the least impact on the environment, leaving applicants to focus only on the site-specific environmental issues the proposed project might raise.

The BLM will continue to identify new SEZs, taking into account conditions in the solar market and existing and planned transmission systems. In Arizona, the BLM plans to assess the need for new or expanded SEZs at least once every five years. The addition of the Agua Caliente SEZ makes a total of three SEZs in Arizona. The other two, established by the Solar PEIS, are the Brenda SEZ, with 3,348 acres located in La Paz County in west-central Arizona, and the Gillespie SEZ, with 2,618 acres located in Maricopa County, also in the west-central region of the state.

The Solar PEIS established an initial 17 SEZs in six southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Those SEZs are comprised of 285,000 acres of land set aside for solar energy development. There are also 19.3 million additional acres of BLM land in those states that the BLM will make available to solar energy development projects that pass a more stringent environmental review.

SEZ projects must comply with NEPA, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). However, in issuing the Solar PEIS, the DOI has implemented key stream-lined features that reduce the amount of environmental review proposed projects will have to undergo. The BLM has already conducted a thorough environmental review of the SEZs under NEPA and determined the optimum locations for solar energy development with the fewest environmental concerns. Applicants for ROW authorizations for utility-scale solar energy facilities will be able to make use of the BLM’s NEPA findings and will only have to focus their review on site-specific and facility-specific issues. As with ROW applications for the Agua Caliente SEZ, applicants in the BLM’s other SEZs will be able to utilize relevant portions of the Solar PEIS and focus on site-specific issues in developing its NEPA documents. Moreover, the PEIS analyzes the likely environmental effects of utility-scale solar development and identifies SEZ-specific design features that will be required of all solar projects in those zones. This will help solar energy developers avoid some of the risks and costs associated with an environmental review because they will not have to develop NEPA documents from scratch and can focus on designs with a high likelihood of being acceptable to BLM. The Solar PEIS applies to all new ROW applications in SEZs. “New” applications are those filed within an SEZ after June 30, 2009. The Solar PEIS also applies to any application filed within a variance or exclusion zone after October 28, 2011. Any application filed before those dates are not affected by the Solar PEIS. In addition, the Solar PEIS does not affect projects that were approved before the ROD was issued (October 12, 2012).

The Solar PEIS provides important incentives for solar energy developers. Authorization of ROWs in SEZs will not be subject to administrative appeals. The BLM is also continuing to evaluate transmission needs for the SEZs, including consideration of available capacity on existing lines and the need for new or modified corridors.

In the meantime, three environmental groups have filed suit against the BLM, alleging that the bureau violated NEPA by ignoring alternative approaches for solar energy development on BLM land that would be less damaging to the environment. The Western Lands Project, Desert Protective Council, and Western Watersheds Project filed their suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on February 12, 2013 (Case No. 3:13-cv-00339).