Big solar on public lands in the U.S. West has gotten a big bump in the two-plus years of the Obama administration, and now the federal government is narrowing the focus for siting new projects, hoping the move will “make for faster, better permitting of large-scale solar projects.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) said today that after receiving 80,000 comments on a Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) unveiled last December, it was trimming the number of target areas – called “solar energy zones” – in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah from 24 to 17, and reducing the number of acres in play from 677,000 to 285,000. The DOI said its public-lands agency, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), “refined or removed zones that had development constraints or serious resource conflicts.”
The modified draft “also establishes a variance process, going forward, that will allow development of well-sited projects outside of solar energy zones on an additional 20 million acres of public land,” but Reuters reported that in a conference call with reporters, Salazar said projects proposed for those outlying areas would face a less streamlined process.
Salazar said the federal government was particularly interested in pointing development toward a 214,000-acre area within the target zones “where the sweet spots are.”
Immediate industry reaction to the new draft appeared to be lukewarm. In a statement, Solar Energy Industry Association chief Rhone Resch said: “While we are still reviewing all of the details in this proposal, there are some significant areas of concern regarding the viability of a solar-energy zone approach. Siting flexibility and access to transmission are key to the financing and development of utility-scale solar power plants. Both aspects must be reflected in the final PEIS.”