US ‘Solar Zones’ In Place, Ready For Big Projects

The Obama administration on Friday gave final approval to a plan that opens up 285,000 acres in 17 zones in six Western states for streamlined utility-scale solar power development. The Department of the Interior said the fast-track sites are “characterized by excellent solar resources, good energy transmission potential, and relatively low conflict with biological, cultural and historic resources.”

The Programmatic Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy development doesn’t limit such power plants to the solar energy zones, but the benefits to siting projects in them will be substantial. The government’s major land caretaker, the Bureau of Land Manaagment, has committed to “facilitating faster and easier permitting in the SEZs, improving and facilitating mitigation, facilitating permitting of needed transmission to the SEZs, encouraging solar development on suitable adjacent nonfederal lands, and providing economic incentives for development in SEZs.”

solar power

image via BrightSource Energy

The Department of the Interior said that if fully built out, solar projects in the zones could produce some 23,700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power around 7 million American homes.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed the Record of Decision codifying the plan in Las Vegas on Friday, joined there by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), proving that even in the face of a recalcitrant Congress, the executive branch has tools to make things happen.

“Energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled since the President took office, and with today’s milestone, we are laying a sustainable foundation to keep expanding our nation’s domestic energy resources,” Salazar said in a statement. “This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama’s commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs.”

image via the White House

There are zones in six states, but that’s a little bit misleading: Of the 285,000 acres, more than half – 147,910 – are in California’s Riverside County, which borders Orange County on its western flank and then stretches all the way east across the Mojave and Colorado deserts to Arizona.

Pre-Obama, no big solar energy projects had been permitted on public lands. But according to the Interior Department, under Obama 33 renewable energy projects have been approved for construction on or involving public lands, including 18 solar plants, seven wind farms and eight geothermal plants. In May, the first of those big projects –  Enbridge Silver State North, a 50-megawatt solar PV array 40 miles south of Las Vegas – went online.

Additional information (PDFs) from the Department of the Interior:

 

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.