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Interior boss Ken Salazar issued his first secretarial order Wednesday, a "moonshot for energy independence" that propels solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects ahead of oil and gas development.
"For the last administration, renewable energy just was not a priority," Salazar said during a telephone news conference.
Not so for the Obama administration. With Salazar's declaration, the production, development and delivery of large-scale alternative-energy projects vault to the top of Interior's to-do list.
It was unclear Wednesday whether the federal order would complement -- or clash with -- similar efforts under way in Utah.
Through an initiative of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., the state has mapped its renewable zones and estimated the costs and benefits of development that appear beneficial for Utah. The state expects to funnel about $34 million from the federal stimulus package toward clean-energy projects.
A bill before the Legislature, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, R-Layton, would provide financial incentives for alternative-energy-equipment manufacturers and developers who want to work in the state.
And another measure, pushed by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, would set up a mechanism to fund transmission lines to connect renewable-energy projects already producing electricity to the main grid.
That's the kind of planning that is necessary but has been lacking, said Marc Smith, executive director of the Denver-based Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.
"We support moving in a sustainable direction in regards to energy policy, and we support wind and solar," Smith said. "At the same time, we feel it's important for the administration to plan in a comprehensive manner" to determine the economic feasibility of transmission.
And with renewables accounting for less than 2 percent of the nation's energy, "double and double them again and you're still in the single digits," Smith said. "The irony is that natural gas both complements and enables renewable energy."
The Wilderness Society -- which has lobbied the White House for significant reform on how electrical grids are planned, built and managed -- applauded Salazar for "taking seriously the challenges global warming poses to our nation's health and well-being."
Salazar said that even if the Southwest's renewable zones excluded sensitive lands, enough area would remain to produce 88 percent of the West's energy needs with solar alone.
"There's huge potential here," he said.
Utah Clean Energy, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit organization, in a report commissioned by Huntsman adviser Dianne Nielson, estimated that energy savings and renewables could meet all of the state's projected energy-demand growth through 2020.
Interior's first task will be to map -- as Utah has done -- the nation's renewable-energy zones in a way that doesn't harm the environment, Salazar said.
Another goal: Put people to work by clearing the backlog of alternative-energy-permit requests that lagged under the Bush administration.
Hundreds of applications for solar- and wind-energy permits piled up under the previous policy of speeding oil and gas development, putting the new energy economy's engineering and production employment on hold.
"With no permits," Salazar said, "there can be no jobs."
The quest for energy security will require working with other federal agencies, states and tribes to develop a way to deliver renewable energy to customers.
"We have to connect the sun of the deserts and the wind of the Plains," Salazar said, "to places where people live."
One Interior agency, the Bureau of Land Management, already has estimated that Western wind-project developers could build on 20.6 million acres. More than 25 million acres could go to solar development and geothermal potential covers more than 40 million acres. Wind- and wave-energy projects are possible on both coasts and in the Gulf of Mexico.
Salazar said the broad environmental impact studies the Bush administration completed for geothermal and wind development may undergo revisions to reflect the new renewable-energy focus.
But oil and gas development still is under way. "In the last six weeks we have had five major oil- and gas-lease sales onshore, netting more than $32 million in revenue for taxpayers," Salazar said. "And next week, I will be traveling to New Orleans to participate in a lease sale for the central Gulf of Mexico."
Interior has set up an energy and climate-change task force to measure renewable potential on public lands across the nation. The panel has been working since Jan. 21.
Provo-based Raser Technologies' geothermal plant west of Beaver soon will supply power for thousands of Southern California households.
The Department of Energy is looking at Utah sites for large-scale projects that could make solar energy available when the sun isn't shining.
First Wind's Milford project in Beaver County is expected to generate power equivalent to the needs of 200,000 households by year's end.
Utah State University will get more than $761,000 in federal grants for biomass research and development.