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October 23, 2012
Southwest solar program advances

With the signing of a record of decision (ROD), Interior Secretary Salazar formally launched the administration’s program to promote utility-scale solar energy projects in six Southwestern states.  According to the DOI, the program will ensure a more efficient and effective approach to siting and permitting solar projects in 17 solar energy zones (SEZs) on 285,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.  More than half the area (153,627 acres) is the Imperial East and Riverside East SEZs of California.

Environmental impact statement

The signed ROD adopts the programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) the DOI and the Department of Energy released in July 2012.  The DOI states that the PEIS/ROD establishes a comprehensive approach to solar energy that will eliminate miles of red tape and bureaucratic obstacles that have slowed solar energy development in sun-drenched areas of the Southwest. 

The PEIS identified SEZs that contain the fewest resource conflicts and offer access to existing or planned transmission.   The federal program also contemplates case-by-case basis consideration of solar projects in “variance” areas, about 19 million acres outside SEZs.  The DOI states that it is currently working with the Transmission Expansion Planning Policy Committee and the Western Electricity Coordination Council to ensure that solar energy projects in the SEZs and variance areas will have access to transmission.  About 79 million acres with natural and cultural resources are explicitly excluded from solar energy development under the PEIS. 

Incentives in the PEIS intended to attract developers include strict deadline permitting, interagency coordination, and single-point access to all DOI agencies.   
If fully built out, projects in the designated areas could produce as much as 23,700 megawatts of solar energy, says the DOI, enough to power approximately 7 million American homes.

Mitigation

DOI’s Bureau of Land Management has committed to developing regional mitigation plans for each SEZ to address potential adverse impacts of the solar energy projects.  Mitigation will follow a hierarchy–avoidance first, followed by minimization and then offsets.  Developers receiving permits for work in SEZs or variance zones will also be required to incorporate “programmatic design features” in their projects.  Required design elements include plans for dust abatement, hazardous materials and waste management, spill prevention and emergency response, and worker education and awareness.

Under the solar PEIS, “utility-scale solar energy development” is defined as any project capable of generating 20 MW or more.  Decisions on projects that are less than 20 MW would continue to be made in accordance with existing land use plan requirements, current applicable policy, and individual site-specific analyses, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. 

Click here for DOI’s ROD for solar energy development in six Southwestern states.

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