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A Long-Term Game Plan for Solar Energy Development on our Public Lands

As part of this administrations commitment to renewable energy, the Bureau of Land Management is releasing its final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS).

Secretary Salazar’s Interior Department has made dramatic progress in siting utility-scale renewable energy projects on our public lands over the past three years.  When President Obama came into office in January 2009, there were no solar projects permitted on our public lands -- despite the availability of world class solar resources in the tens of millions of acres of public lands in the sunny desert southwest. 

What a difference three years can make.  As of July 2012, our Department has permitted 31 major renewable energy projects with the capacity to generate nearly 7,000 megawatts and meet the power needs of about two million homes.  A majority of that new renewable energy involves utility-scale solar projects.  Indeed, workers are constructing – right now -- some of the world’s largest solar facilities in the deserts of California and Nevada. 

At the same time, our Bureau of Land Management has been laying the foundation for ensuring that solar development continues to proceed in the right way, and in the right places, on our public lands - over the long term. 

As part of this commitment, this week the BLM released its final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS).  The Solar PEIS has taken an unprecedented, landscape-level view of how and where solar projects should be developed in the future on our public lands.  It identifies “solar energy zones” in areas that have high solar resource potential and present fewer potential natural resource or cultural conflicts, and it establishes a framework of incentives to attract solar development to those areas, including opportunities for developers to buy into more meaningful, regional mitigation opportunities than are now available.  The Solar PEIS lays out the criteria for adding new solar energy zones, it cross-references important regional efforts that are doing just that, and it avoids adopting a “one size fits all” approach by inviting project applicants to propose building projects outside of the solar energy zones where it may make sense to do so.

This week’s announcement is the result of a lot of good dialogue. Conservation groups, solar developers, utilities, and government officials have all had a seat at the table as we have worked through the issues and developed consensus solutions. 

The result is a blueprint for solar energy that will stand the test of time.  Its forward-looking, landscape-level approach will provide more certainty for industry and faster permitting decision-making while, at the same time, providing more protection for the environment.  Just as the Interior Department’s “smart for the start” is developing our world-class wind resource off the east coast of the U.S. by identifying de-conflicted “wind energy areas” for targeted, expedited development, the Solar PEIS’s recommendations for “solar energy zones” will help the BLM to continue to break its own records as it moves out with the President’s robust, all of the above, push for true energy independence. 

 David J. Hayes is Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior