Los Angeles • A draft plan identifying prime areas for solar energy projects on public lands in the Southwest was released Thursday by the Interior Department in an effort to speed up development.
The draft identifies 24 so-called solar energy zones in Utah, California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona that have the highest potential for solar development with the fewest environmental impacts.
The plan announced during a conference call in Washington, D.C., also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development.
"The steps taken today help ensure that the United States will lead the world in energy technologies critical for meeting our energy goals and for sustaining economic growth," said Henry Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy with the Department of Energy.
In Utah, the plan focuses on but does not restrict development to three west desert sites in Beaver and Iron counties. These areas are thought to have few likely environmental impacts because they are in low-quality wildlife habitat that already has roads and power transmission lines.
Federal officials said there will be a 90-day public comment period and a series of public meetings in the Southwest as well as Washington. The final report, which aims to reduce conflicts and delays later in the process, will be released in 2011, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
Congress in 2005 gave the Interior Department a goal to approve 10,000 megawatts, or about 5 million homes' worth during peak hours, of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Increasing such projects has been a key goal for the Obama administration.
Federal officials predict that the solar projects could contribute to this target by delivering up to 24,000 megawatts of electricity enough to keep 16 million homes powered at peak loads.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's energy adviser, Dianne Nielson, said the plan likely will be most useful in guiding the solar power industry toward viable sites in the state.
"The real value of the study will be in how industry works with it," she said. "They (the Interior Department) have produced some information that industry will, hopefully, find useful."
Conservationists poring over the report's estimated 10,000 pages said they are pleased the federal government is finally outlining a program to more quickly approve good solar projects.
Many, like Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator at The Wilderness Society, however, said they are concerned about the proposal to open additional acreage beyond the vetted zones.
"The opportunity here is to speed responsible development and limit impact," he said. "Why not focus on areas with the best chance of success and the least environmental impact?"
In Utah, for instance, Daue said the identified solar zone at Milford Flats already is degraded by massive pig-feeding operations, and the government should start in places like that rather than throwing open more pristine Bureau of Land Management acreage for energy leasing.
Reporter Brandon Loomis contributed to this story.
Solar projects on public lands
Three west desert sites in Beaver and Iron counties in Utah are among 24 solar energy zones identified by the Interior Department for possible solar development. They make up nearly 18,000 acres in the Escalante Valley, Milford Flats South and the Wah Wah Valley.