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Interior Approves Public Lands Solar Plan

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar | Photo: Army Corps of Engineers/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The U.S. Department of the Interior announced today that it had issued a Record of Decision approving an environmental impact statement for developing solar energy facilities on almost 20 million acres of public lands in six states -- nearly a million acres of that in California.

The Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (PEIS), in the works since 2010 as a joint project of Interior and the Department of Energy, would establish 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, comprising 285,000 acres, in which permitting for utility-scale solar energy development would be expedited. The PEIS also establishes about 19 million acres of "variance zones," in which additional solar development would be allowed -- though without the shortcuts available to developers in the SEZs.

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"Energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled since the President took office, and with today's milestone, we are laying a sustainable foundation to keep expanding our nation's domestic energy resources," said Secretary Salazar, who signed today's Record of Decision at an event in Las Vegas, Nevada with Senator Harry Reid. "This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama's commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs."

The 17 Solar Zones include two in California -- the 5,722-acre Imperial East SEZ near Calexico in Imperial County, and the sprawling 147,910-acre Riverside East SEZ between Desert Center and Blythe in eastern Riverside County.

Two California SEZs proposed in the first draft of the PEIS, the Pisgah and Iron Mountain SEZs between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, were dropped from the final version in a ritual concession to environmental groups -- part of an overall reduction from 24 SEZ encompassing 677,400 acres across the west.

766,078 acres in California have been designated variance zones, in which solar facilities may be built provided they pass standard environmental review, and a few extra hurdles imposed by the Bureau of Land Management. Most California variance lands are within about 40 miles of the Colorado River, as well as within the corridors of Interstates 40 and 15 corridor, including much of the formerly proposed Pisgah SEZ. Checkerboarded variance areas will also be established near Barstow and Dagget, California City, and the Highways 247-62 corridor from Victorville to 29 Palms.

The PEIS also establishes exclusion areas, about 77 million acres across the six states deemed too ecologically valuable or culturally sensitive to justify development for solar. Of these exclusion areas, 9,460,726 are in California. Exclusions areas include land already protected as Wilderness Study Areas, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and Wild and Scenic River corridors. The former proposed Iron Mountain SEZ has been designated an exclusion area, as has Ivanpah Valley -- which won't stop the three major projects already being built in the portion of that valley not part of the Mojave National Preserve.

"The Solar PEIS sets forth an enduring, flexible blueprint for developing utility-scale solar projects in the right way, and in the right places, on our public lands," said David J. Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior. "Never before has the Interior Department worked so closely and collaboratively with the industry, conservationists and sportsmen alike to develop a sound, long-term plan for generating domestic energy from our nation's sun-drenched public lands."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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