Washington • The Interior Department on Tuesday designated 285,000 federal acres in the West as "solar energy zones," including three spots in Utah where officials say panels could go up quickly to fuel future electrical needs.
In laying out a "blueprint" for renewable energy on public lands, Interior officials said they're attempting to streamline the approval process for the large-scale solar installations rather than permitting each one on a case-by-case basis.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that the plan "serves as a road map for solar energy for decades to come and will help create an enduring and sustainable energy future for the United States of America."
While setting aside zones in six states, the plan also blocks development of major solar projects in some 78 million acres of public lands in the West to protect cultural or natural resources.
The blueprint, Salazar said, "maps out where it makes sense to develop solar energy and just as importantly, it also maps out where doesn't make sense to develop solar energy."
In Utah, Interior proposes solar projects could be built in the Escalante Valley in Iron County and in Beaver County's Milford Flats South and the Wah Wah Valley. In all, some 18,658 acres in Utah would comprise the state's solar energy zones.
Large swaths of the state, including around national parks, are restricted from solar installations, according to a map provided by Interior.
But the department also labeled 19 million acres in the Western states as potential sites for solar projects through a waiver process and acting Bureau of Land Management Director Mike Pool says his agency expects to grant some of those variances.
Pressed about the process for choosing the solar zones, Salazar said that they were selected for their proximity to electrical transmission lines, the yield of solar energy in the area and the low conflict with biological, cultural and historical resources.
"Ample land is being made available here," Salazar said.
Some 70 projects already in the pipeline for solar installations on public lands will be grandfathered into the latest plan, Interior says.
Environmentalists and the solar industry applauded the move that came after two years of negotiations.
"This is a huge step forward for the Bureau of Land Management, which has tended to address energy development on a project-by-project basis in response to the wants of individual companies rather than the values of the American public or the needs of fish and wildlife," said Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation's policy director for public lands.
Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, said Interior should be praised for gathering input from all sides of the issue and finding a happy medium.
"Balancing the growing demand for domestically-produced solar energy with conservation objectives is not an easy task," Eddy said. "We look forward to working with them to refine the process for permitting solar power plants and transmission in the West."
Interior's announcement Tuesday could help develop some 23,700 megawatts, enough energy to power 7 million American homes, officials said.
Currently, only one solar project on public land - a 50 megawatt operation in Nevada is generating electricity, though Interior officials said projects totaling 10,000 megawatts of power will be feeding the electrical grid by the next year.
Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs a House subcommittee over public lands, said he has significant concerns that the new zones might preclude other uses of the land, and he said he worries about the impact on the military's Utah Test and Training Range.
"While I am a proponent of solar energy on public lands, where it makes sense, I have a healthy skepticism of new land designations that originate with Washington bureaucrats and not at the local or state level," Bishop said.
"Placing specific limitations on use of our nation's public land can often be detrimental to communities and while much remains to be seen about the solar zones, it is my goal to ensure that communities and residents are protected throughout the process."