In line with President Obama’s energy strategy to increase domestic energy production, Secretary of the US Department of the Interior Ken Salazar has finalized the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for large-scale solar energy development in six western US states, namely Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Secretary Salazar signed the Record of Decision at an event in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Senator Harry Reid.

“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,” said Secretary Salazar. “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.”

The programme, which is designed to spur the development of solar energy on public lands, provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy projects. It establishes 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.

In more detail, the PEIS for solar energy establishes an initial set of 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) which cover approximately 285,000 acres of public land. These zones have been identified as priority areas for utility-scale solar development. There is also the potential for additional zones which could result from ongoing and future regional planning processes.

According to project developer estimates as cited by the US Department of the Interior, if the entire designated 285,000 acres of land is utilized for solar projects, the projects could generate up to 23,700MW of electricity which is said to be enough to power around 7 million homes. They would also support 13,000 construction and operations jobs.

However, the PEIS is not restricted to the SEZs. The programme will also consider solar projects on a case-by-case basis outside of the identified zones but located on around 19 million acres in “variance” areas.

In addition, the programme has set up a framework for regional mitigation plans, and identifies best practices for solar energy development. Furthermore, in order to protect key natural and cultural resources, the programme has excluded just under 79 millions acres of land which has been deemed inappropriate for solar development.

“The Solar PEIS sets forth an enduring, flexible blueprint for developing utility-scale solar projects in the right way, and in the right places, on our public lands,” said David J. Hayes, deputy secretary of the US Department of the Interior. “Never before has the Interior Department worked so closely and collaboratively with the industry, conservationists and sportsmen alike to develop a sound, long-term plan for generating domestic energy from our nation’s sun-drenched public lands.”

The signing of the Record of Decision follows the July release of the Final PEIS, a comprehensive analysis conducted in partnership with the Department of Energy which identified locations on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands most suitable for solar energy development.

In response to the new roadmap, Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), and Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association (LSA) released a statement supporting the new programme as well as highlighting areas which need to be refined.

Resch said, “We thank the Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy for finalizing the process for solar energy development on public lands. We hope that this decision results in a permitting process that brings more solar online to serve the American people.

“The US Southwest is home to some of the best solar resources in the world. It’s a region universally-recognized for its ability to enhance our energy security. The Administration set a goal to permit 10GW of additional renewable energy projects on public lands by the end of this year. The US solar industry is ready to meet that challenge. Major solar projects are under construction in the Southwest right now, increasing and diversifying our domestic energy supply, while delivering clean power and creating jobs.

“The PEIS identifies a process that has the potential to accommodate well-sited solar power plants outside of designated Solar Energy Zones and protects the rights of pending solar applications. The Bureau of Land Management must ensure pending projects do not get bogged down in more bureaucratic processes.”

Eddy added, “Balancing the growing demand for domestically-produced solar energy with conservation objectives is not an easy task. We are appreciative of the Departments’ efforts to gather input from all stakeholders. We look forward to working with them to refine the process for permitting solar power plants and transmission in the West, with the hope that new solar projects will move forward in the near future.”