U.S. announces desert 'solar energy zones'

October 28, 2011 By Julie Cart

The Obama administration on Thursday announced its plan for solar energy development, directing large-scale industrial projects to 285,000 acres of desert in the Western U.S. while opening 20 million acres of the Mojave for development.

The Bureau of Land Management's "solar energy zones" are intended to make some of the desert's most sensitive landscapes less desirable for solar prospecting by identifying "sweet spots" that have already passed environmental requirements and therefore promise expedited permitting, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

"These 445 square miles of zones are ... where development will be driven," Salazar said.

The 17 solar energy zones in six western states - including two large areas in California - were identified by their absence of major environmental or cultural conflicts. But nothing prevents a developer from requesting permission to build on federal land outside the preferred areas.

The policy, which is expected to be final next year, would not apply to the 13 already under construction across the West, nor the 79 pending applications that would occupy 685,000 acres of public land. There are 20 utility-scale solar applications awaiting approval in California.

Industry and environmental groups have eagerly anticipated release of the plan, with both sides saying much is at stake. Solar developers need to site projects ahead of deadlines for billions of dollars in federal and state subsides. Conservation groups contend that the desert - home to scores of endangered - is not capable of absorbing industrial-scale change.

The , which had a hand in writing the proposed regulations, applauded the additional clarity they provide but bridled at the zone approach.

"While we are still reviewing all of the details in this proposal, there are some significant areas of concern," said Rhone Resch, president of the Industry Assn. "Siting flexibility and access to transmission are key to the financing and development of utility-scale solar power plants. Both aspects must be reflected in the final" plan.

And the Bureau of Land Management's decision not to make vast areas of the desert off-limits to development irked some environmentalists.

The bureau "never will close the door on anything; that's the only thing that has been consistent in this whole process," said Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project. "They won't put their foot down."

Critics contend that the policies are too late, coming after three years of free-for-all leasing that encouraged rampant speculation. Since the leasing began, the has been working to process more than 300 solar applications. Many are in the Mojave Desert, where the cost of private land has soared and desert has been given over to what will be hundreds of square miles of mirrors.

The government has spent millions of dollars to develop a framework to regulate solar operations on public lands, electing to write new protocols rather than apply existing leasing rules for oil and gas.

The first draft of the Bureau of Land Management plan that was released Thursday cost the agency more than $13 million to prepare. Additionally, as of last year, the bureau had spent more than $18 million to more accurately map federal land holdings.

Combined, those projects consumed nearly 80 percent of the Recovery Act funding set aside for the bureau's entire renewables program, according to an analysis by the Interior Department's inspector general.

Explore further: US approves world's biggest solar energy project (Update)

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5 / 5 (3) Oct 28, 2011
How much energy will they produce?
5 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2011
How much energy will they produce?

The question I care more about:

How much will this massive government project serve to advance the industry through overcoming the practical problems encountered and through validation of the industry in general?

I see this as akin to NASA in the 50's. Where NASA was just dipping its toes in the cosmic ocean, today the US government has shown a determination to embark on a journey towards energy independence.

This project may wind up to be only like the Mercury Redstone rocket in the grand scheme of things, but without it, we'll never get to the Apollo Saturn V, the Shuttle, or especially the private industry equivalent of SpaceShipOne and its multitude of inevitable successors.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 28, 2011
It's all evolution.
not rated yet Oct 28, 2011
modern conservatives had better see a full-on moon landing or the program is toast. this worries me as well.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2011
Hundreds of square miles of mirrors?

Get a little carried away, perhaps?

There's 640 acres in a square mile. BrightSource, one honkin' big thermal solar installation is using only 65 acres for mirrors and tower.
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 28, 2011
China will annex the Mojave after putting solar in.
3 / 5 (2) Oct 28, 2011
Environmental impact of solar in the desert? :Regretable.
Energy importance of renewable solar energy? :Very important.
Government spending: incredibly inefficient, par for course.
2 / 5 (4) Oct 28, 2011
How much energy will they produce?


The title of the article is a bit misleading, as there will be ZERO energy produced from this plan, per se. It has more to do with clearing the bureaucratic red tape hurdle than producing energy immediately.
2.7 / 5 (3) Oct 31, 2011
Promoting the building of solar power plants in unused wasteland is one of the very few things the government is doing right and that will benifit the people.

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