Interior Department Releases Final Solar Impact Statement

Solar power tower under construction on public lands in the Ivanpah Valley, outside proposed Solar Energy Zones. | Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Interior Department has released the final version of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development on public lands in six southwestern states. The PEIS, which will be published Thursday in the Federal Register, establishes 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

The SEZs, which together encompass 285,000 acres, will be the focus of federal public lands solar development. Developers may still propose projects outside SEZs, and the PEIS sets out procedures for creating additional SEZs in response to industry demand.

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The PEIS also establishes 19 million acres of "variance" areas on public lands throughout the affected states -- the bulk of them in Nevada -- on which utility-scale solar development can proceed as usual, though without the accelerated permitting developers in the SEZs will enjoy. The majority of California desert utility-scale solar development currently being built is outside the proposed SEZs. Between the SEZs and the variance areas, the PEIS addresses potential solar development on nearly 20 million acres of public land.

The PEIS now undergoes a 30-day period in which the public can protest its adoption, at the end of which Interior Secretary Ken Salazar can -- and almost certainly will -- adopt the PEIS in a formal Record Of Decision.

Two SEZs have been designated in California covering 153,627 acres in total: the 5,717-acre Imperial East SEZ near Calexico and the Riverside East SEZ, which covers 147,910 acres -- a bit more than 230 square miles -- in eastern Riverside County between Blythe and Desert Center. The Chocolate Mountains east of the Salton Sea are mentioned in Interior's press release as a site under discussion for an additional SEZ.

The PEIS also excludes certain lands in California from further solar development, including the so-called Catellus lands proposed for inclusion in the Mojave Trails National Monument, lands classified by the BLM as Class C California Desert Conservation Area lands which are already technically protected, and portions of the Ivanpah Valley. A few areas adjacent to California's three desert National Parks are also proposed as exclusion areas.

The PEIS is a gargantuan document -- it weighs in at 3,288 pages, not counting more than 300 pages of comments -- and ReWire will be plowing through it in the next few days to report further on details. But a few differences are apparent in the California portion of the document, as compared with the Draft version of the PEIS released in December 2010. Most notably, the proposed Pisgah and Iron Mountain SEZs have been dropped, reducing the California SEZ area by more than 200 square miles. Riverside East has been pared down by about 25% from its original 203,000 acres.

Dropping Iron Mountain comes as no surprise: the BLM has long been aware that the area held significant ecological value unsuitable for industrial development. In September 2010 I asked Ray Brady, who headed the BLM's Renewable Energy Coordination Office in Washington, D.C., whether there were any of the SEZs he felt were really too valuable to develop, and "Iron Mountain" was his answer.

A number of large environmental groups, solar developers, and utility companies applauded the release of the PEIS. In a statement today the groups called the PEIS an "historic milestone in our nation's effort to accelerate environmentally responsible renewable energy generation that will create jobs, reduce greenhouse gases, and contribute to national energy security." The statement's signers included the Audubon Society, Brightsource Energy, DBL Ventures, Defenders of Wildlife, enXco, First Solar, Greater Phoenix Economic Council, Large-scale Solar Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy, NRG Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Sierra Club, Solar Energy Industries Association, Southern California Edison, Vote Solar, and The Wilderness Society.

We will report further on the PEIS in days to come.

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For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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