FRESNO, Calif. – The Obama administration moved Tuesday to streamline the development of large-scale solar projects on public lands by approving 17 tracts across the West, including five in Nevada, with the highest power-generating potential and the fewest environmental impacts.
As developers scramble to secure utility-scale solar sites, the plan will move the Department of the Interior away from having to consider individual projects on a case-by-case basis and instead direct development to land already identified as having fewer wildlife and natural resource obstacles.
"Today’s announcement is a road map for solar development for decades to come and will help create an enduring and sustainable energy future for America," Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said.
The Department of Interior will start a 30-day protest period, after which Salazar could adopt the plan.
The environmental impact statement was the result of a two-year study involving government regulators, environmental groups and utilities. It identifies land where the Department of Interior has streamlined the environmental approval process and offered reduced lease payments as development incentives.
"This is a huge step forward for the Bureau of Land Management, which has tended to address energy development on a project-by-project basis in response to the wants of individual companies rather than the values of the American public or the needs of fish and wildlife," said Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation’s policy director for public lands.
The zones cover 285,000 acres, with five sites in Nevada, four in Colorado, three in Utah, two each in California and Arizona, and one in New Mexico. Originally, 677,000 acres of the 253 million acres managed by the BLM had been considered. Proximity to transmission lines was a factor in the decision.
"This is a really big milestone in terms of environmentally sensitive and responsible solar development," said Helen O’Shea of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Having a road map for development and conservation and striking the right balance between the two is going to be critical for protecting our Western landscapes as we build our clean energy economy."
California has two projects, both near the Arizona border, but it has more than half the total acreage, with 153,627 acres.
Nevada has the next-highest acreage at 60,395 scattered across the southern and central portions of the state. Its five sites include 60,395 acres that are expected to generate 6,711 megawatts of electricity. The smallest site is Dry Lake, 5,717 acres in Clark County; the largest is Dry Lake North, covering 25,069 acres in Lincoln County. The other sites are Amargosa Valley in Nye County and Gold Point and Millers in Esmeralda County.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., applauded the plan’s impact on his home state.
"I commend the Obama administration for their commitment to Nevada’s clean energy future," Reid said. "Today’s announcement will allow companies to more rapidly deploy solar projects on public lands with minimal environmental conflicts, helping our state become the vibrant core of a Western and national clean energy market unlike anywhere in the world."
The announcement comes a week after closure of the Amonix solar manufacturing plant in North Las Vegas, which had been subsidized by more than $20 million in federal tax credits and grants.
Colorado will have 16,308 acres available in the south-central portion of the state; Arizona 6,465 acres near the California border; New Mexico 29,964 acres, most in its south-central region; and western Utah 18,658 acres.
At least 70 applications for development are pending and would be grandfathered into the plan.
Interior officials have said the existence of the zones won’t preclude projects on other public lands, but developers would have to make a stronger case for it. The Department of the Interior has identified 19 million more acres where solar is suitable, but those lands will not come with environmental impact assessment groundwork already performed.
"There will be more process involved and an additional look required to make sure they can proceed, and we have set out criteria to do that" to expedite the process, Salazar said . "If developers come forward with good areas where they think a project will be well-situated, they have to do the work. The department will not have done it for them."
Officials have said the plan provides more clarity on how projects can proceed and gives potential developers certainty that they will be working in areas the government considers suited for solar power.
Under Salazar, the Interior department has approved 17 utility-scale projects that, once complete, could produce 5,700 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power 1.7 million homes. They would be the first-ever on public lands.
Officials estimate that between the new variance zones and suitable land identified on the additional acreage, enough electricity for 7 million homes could be produced.
Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault contributed to this report.Breakdown by State
Arizona: Two sites on 6,465 acres
California: Two sites on 153,627 acres
Colorado: Four sites on 16,308 acres
Nevada: Five sites on 60,395 acres
New Mexico: One site on 29,964 acres
Utah: Three sites on 18,658 acres
Sites in Nevada
• Amargosa Valley, Nye County: 8,479 acres, 942 megawatts
• Dry Lake, Clark County: 5,717 acres, 635 megawatts
• Dry Lake North, Lincoln County: 25,069 acres, 2,785 megawatts
• Gold Point, Esmeralda County: 4,596 acres, 511 megawatts
• Millers, Esmeralda County: 16,534 acres, 1,837 megawatts
• Total: 60,395 acres, 6,711 megawatts