The U.S. Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management have crafted an addendum to their solar development plan for the Southwestern United States.
Called the Supplement to the Solar Energy Development Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, the joint report expands on the original Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Draft Solar PEIS for short) developed in 2010 and aimed at “fast-tracking” solar projects on public lands in six Southwestern states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
The plan is being viewed as a “landscape level blueprint” which will reinforce and improve utility-scale solar energy permitting and incentivizing.
One can only hope, since the original plan resulted in granting a lot of permits, for projects in excess of ten megawatts, on most or all of the original 24 tracts identified by the BLM and known as Solar Energy Study Areas – permits that caused enormous discontent and uncertainty, largely among residents of specific areas who saw their way of life, heritage, and even quality of life altered for the worse.
Others charged that the permits were hastily and ill-advisedly handed out, to entities like Goldman Sachs and its subsidiaries, which sat on about 56 leases totaling 120,000 acres for several years without ever developing a single kilowatt of solar energy.
In fact, the only renewable energy facilities Goldman Sachs subsidiary Cogentrix has developed to date are in San Bernardino County, California, and were constructed in 1984 and 1985. Everything else is still to come on line or retired from consideration.
Notable among the harshest grievances were environmentalists trying to protect the desert tortoise, and several Native American tribes, which sued to block five solar thermal plants. A couple of California politicians even jumped into the fray, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) attempting to stop development in the Mojave Desert, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who earned more than his 15 minutes by famously proclaiming: “If we can’t put solar in the desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it.”
The supplementary PEIS reduces the number of exploitable areas (now called solar energy zones, or SEZs) to 17, on 285,000 acres. Notable withdrawals are two sites in California, both almost due east of Los Angeles: in Joshua Tree National Park, and northwest of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base.
The new and modified components of the BLM’s Solar Energy Program, as presented in this daunting, 582-page addendum, will hopefully resolve some of the difficulties, if only because it has eliminated from future consideration such sensitive areas as citizen-designated wilderness, lands slated for proposed protective legislation (the Mojave), core habitat, wildlife migration corridors, and areas around National Parks (see Section 184.108.40.206).
These reductions and improvements are also expected to strengthen the program and increase the likelihood that utility-scale solar energy becomes a viable segment of the U.S. energy generation profile.
The addendum will certainly simplify permitting, if only because the government has already done some of the heavy lifting regarding water issues, threatened species and other environmental impacts – lifting they refer to somewhat obscurely as “draft programmatic guidance”, and aimed at responding to requests in a more efficient and effective manner.
The major takeaway of the supplement appears to be changes in land use planning – removing some, including some, making sure that all current and future inclusions are suitable for solar energy development, and that environmental hazard mitigation measures are deliberate and consistent.
And even though the DOE and BLM are committed to the concept of these SEZs, they have also ensured that solar developers will be able to site their utility-scale solar “farms” outside of the SEZs.
Under the new addendum, the BLM is identifying “old” applications as those filed before June 30, 2009, and those filed after as “new”. The new ones will be subject to a competitive process, including a Record of Decision (ROD: on land variances, rights-of-way, transmission availability, and resource conflicts). Pending applications are those on file before this supplement was published on October 28.
The preferred method of commenting is using the online form. Public comment periods by location will also be scheduled before the supplement is finalized (in July of 2012) at Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and El Centro and Palm Desert, California.
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