This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

July 01, 2009

Interior Department Expedites Solar Energy Development in the West

The U.S. Interior Department launched several initiatives on June 29 to speed the development of solar energy on Western lands. Under the main initiative, 24 tracts of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will be fully evaluated for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production. DOE will help to evaluate these "Solar Energy Study Areas," which are located in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, encompassing about 670,000 acres. The goal is to provide large-scale planning and zoning for solar projects, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and siting responsible solar development. The selected areas will become available for ventures producing 10 megawatts or more of electricity, and those ventures could have their permit applications put on a fast track.

To select the study areas, the Interior Department chose lands with excellent solar resources, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands. The agency excluded sensitive lands, wilderness, and other high-value lands, as well as lands with conflicting uses. The study areas will be evaluated by including them in the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which an ongoing federally-funded environmental evaluation of potential solar energy development on public lands in six Western States. The expansion of the Solar PEIS will be supported with Recovery Act funds. While the study areas are being evaluated, the BLM will temporarily close them to new mining claims and other actions initiated by third parties under public land laws. The evaluation should be completed in late 2010 and will be open to public comment. See the maps of the study areas on the BLM Web site.

The Interior Department is also coordinating with states to expedite permitting for a number of solar power projects nearing approval. The BLM will begin site-specific environmental reviews for two major projects in Nevada that would have a combined capacity of more than 400 megawatts of electricity. To help speed the processing of an increasing number of applications, a new Interior Department renewable energy coordination office has opened in Nevada, the first of four in the West. The BLM currently has about 470 renewable energy project applications, including 158 active solar applications for up to 97,000 megawatts of new solar power capacity on 1.8 million acres. See the Interior Department press release.