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Feds Put Solar Energy Projects on ‘Fast Track’

solararraysPushing for rapid development of renewable energy on U.S. public lands, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) have announced an initiative that will “fast-track” solar energy projects on Interior-managed lands that have significant solar energy potential with limited impact on wildlife, other natural resources or land users. Nearly 500 renewable energy projects have applied for permits.

Federal agencies are expected to work with western leaders to designate tracts of U.S. public lands in the West as prime zones for utility-scale solar energy development. Other initiatives include funding environmental studies, opening new solar energy permitting offices and speeding up reviews of industry proposals.

Environmental advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have worked with the government to balance regional environmental concerns on land conservation with a federal goal of expanding renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reports the Wall Street Journal (via Dow Jones).

Serena Ingre, an NRDC spokeswoman, said in the article, that establishing solar energy zones would expedite the permitting and environmental assessment processes, describing low-conflict areas of natural resources that aren’t located in proximity to wilderness areas or threatened species.

Secretary Salazar said the two dozen areas currently under evaluation could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.  “With coordinated environmental studies, good land-use planning and zoning and priority processing, we can accelerate responsible solar energy production that will help build a clean-energy economy for the 21st century,” he stated.

Many solar projects have been blocked at the local level, putting at risk the Obama administration’s plan to double renewable energy production by 2012, reports the Wall Street Journal, which cites as an example Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) fight against the construction of a solar project on 600,000 acres of federal land between the Mojave desert preserve and the Joshua Tree National Park.

Under one initiative, 24 tracts of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administered land located in six western states (Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah), known as Solar Energy Study Areas, would be evaluated for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), those areas selected would be available for projects capable of producing 10 or more megawatts of electricity for distribution to customers through the transmission grid system. The evaluation will not be completed until 2010.

In addition, companies that propose projects on that scale in areas already approved for this type of development would be eligible for priority processing. The BLM may also decide to use alternative competitive or non-competitive procedures in processing new solar applications for these areas, according to the DOI.

A new Interior renewable energy coordination office (RECO) was opened in Nevada, the first of four, with the others to be located in Arizona, California, and Wyoming. The offices will help to expedite processing of the increased number of applications for renewable energy projects on U.S. lands.

So far BLM has received about 470 renewable energy project applications, which include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres, with a projected capacity to generate 97,000 megawatts of electricity.  Interior also is coordinating with states to expedite permitting for a number of solar power projects nearing approval including two major NextLight Silver State projects, that combined deliver a capacity of more than 400 megawatts of electricity.

BLM hasn’t issued any land-use permits for solar power plants and only two solar power plants are moving to BLM’s final review stage, reports the Wall Street Journal. Those cited in the article include Stirling Energy Systems’ request to use 7,000 acres in Imperial County, Calif., for a 750 MW solar-power plant; and BrightSource Energy Inc.’s request to build a 400 MW solar-power plant on 6,720 acres of public land in Kern County, Calif.

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2 thoughts on “Feds Put Solar Energy Projects on ‘Fast Track’

  1. it seems that to break ground for new solar installations is as bad breaking new ground for any other power plant. We need to retrofit existing structures with solar. There are millions of acres of empty roof space above manufacturing plants, storage buildings, and the like. Why not lease the roof space from them as an additional income to the building owners and maintain the solar installations? Create local jobs as well as rural.

  2. Look, it’s sad that these projects will have an impact on desert ecosystems, but to quote big Arnie “if you can’t put them there, where can you put them?”. It’s a matter of taking the path of least environmental damage. Solar in the desert is it.

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