Monday, May 9, 2011
A recent proposal from two federal agencies recommends using zoning to encourage and coordinate utility-scale solar energy development on public lands.
Last December, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released their Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), which summarizes a two-year study of the potential environmental impacts of industrial-scale solar energy development on BLM land in six western states. Based on the study, the DOE and BLM want to designate 24 specific areas covering more than 1,000 square miles of land in those states as Solar Energy Zones—areas where the BLM would prioritize its solar energy siting activities.
The PEIS is intriguing from an academic perspective in that it evidences the DOE’s and BLM’s deliberate effort to direct solar energy development only to those specific geographic areas that can accommodate the development for the lowest environmental cost. As Professor Sara Bronin recently emphasized in her article, Curbing Energy Sprawl with Microgrids, siting renewable energy projects in remote areas often requires expansive transmission infrastructure and other improvements that can intrude upon habitats and pristine wilderness. For those reasons, some conservation and wildlife protection groups have expressed dissatisfaction over the new PEIS and continue to oppose solar energy projects on federal lands (for example, Colorado-based Solar Done Right released a report last month sharply criticizing the document). On the other hand, the PEIS does attempt to address environmental concerns and should facilitate more cost-justified solar energy development on BLM property. And markets seem poised to move more of these projects forward: Google recently announced its commitment to invest $168 million in Brightsource’s Ivanpah Solar Project on BLM land in California’s Mojave Desert.