The Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy has published the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy development in six south-western states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. In 30 days’ time, if no protests are raised, the government will permit the development of utility-scale projects generating over 20MW on public lands.

Arizona 5,966 acres / 663MW
California 153,627 acres / 17,070MW
Colorado 16,308 acres / 1,812MW
Nevada 60,395 acres / 6,711MW
New Mexico 29,964 acres / 3,329MW
Utah 18,658 acres / 2,073MW

The Solar PEIS is expected to serve as a roadmap for solar energy development by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, the fewest resource conflicts and incentives for development within those zones. The blueprint’s comprehensive analysis will make for faster, better permitting of large-scale solar projects on public lands.

“This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America’s public lands,” said secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades.”

“Developing America’s solar energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s commitment to expanding American-made energy, increasing energy security, and creating jobs,” said energy secretary Steven Chu. “This new roadmap builds on that commitment by identifying public lands that are best suited for solar energy projects, improving the permitting process, and creating incentives to deliver more renewable energy to American homes and businesses.”

The Solar PEIS planning effort has focused on identifying locations on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands that are most suitable for solar energy development. The Final PEIS identifies 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands, as priority areas for utility-scale solar development, with the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes.

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Barbara Boyle, senior representative of US environmental organization Sierra Club, told PV-Tech: "Sierra Club and other environmental NGOs have been very active in meeting with governmental officials throughout this process. Our concern has been to site renewable energy facilities in the locations that will cause the least harm to the environment, because in addition to having some of the best solar resources in the world, public lands in these states also contain habitat for many rare and endangered species in a number of desert and forest ecosystems.

"Thus, our input has focused on finding those places where land is most disturbed (with roads, other infrastructure, etc.) and therefore where development will cause least harm to wildlife and important habitats as preferred locations for solar facilities.

"In addition to habitat impacts, we have emphasized the need to minimize the use of water in desert environments and to protect air and water quality during the construction and operation of these facilities," she continued.

"The Department of Interior's focus on Solar Energy Zones that are least-impact (rather than allowing development sprawled across millions of acres) also will help minimize new transmission and roads required to build large-scale solar, both PV and concentrating solar power. 

"In sum, although we strongly support a fast ramp-up of both large scale and distributed solar generation, we also believe it must follow the principles of first avoiding environmental impacts, and then minimizing and mitigating those that do occur."

First Solar sent a statement: "The SPEIS is an important step in providing a balanced approach to solar development that will help avoid, minimize and mitigate impacts on wildlife and sensitive lands while reducing uncertainty and time required for permitting of solar projects in the United States.

"There are still important efforts remaining both at the programmatic and project levels to flesh out the central tenets laid out in the SPEIS and we look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with the Department of Interior, Department of Energy and other key stakeholders to implement an effective and environmentally responsible solar energy program."