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New Solar Energy Program Signals A Paradigm Shift In Our Approach To Energy Development On Public Lands

by Jessica Goad

The way that solar energy is sited and built on federal public lands just got simpler. Earlier today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed into law a new plan outlining the best places for solar to be developed on public lands and incentives for avoiding places that are ecologically sensitive.

At the beginning of this administration, there were literally no solar energy projects on public lands, despite hundreds of applications lined up. Currently one project is operating while five others are under construction.

“Energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled since the President took office, and with today’s milestone, we are laying a sustainable foundation to keep expanding our nation’s domestic energy resources,” said Secretary Salazar in a statement.

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Perhaps the most unique idea in the “Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” announced today is that of zones for solar development. These areas were screened for their high solar resource potential, transmission capacity, and lack of resource conflicts, the idea being that projects located within them will benefit from faster permitting and easier mitigation. Altogether, 17 zones covering approximately 285,000 acres were identified in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Solar development is also allowable in 19 million acres outside of the zones, but will receive less agency attention and more environmental analyses.

“This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama’s commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs,” said Salazar.

Importantly, this announcement reflects a major step forward in the philosophy about how our public lands are used for energy development. Up until now, the priority use of public lands for energy has been fossil fuels — oil, gas, and coal. Although a handful of wind and geothermal projects were up and running, it wasn’t until this year that any solar projects started generating electricity.

The solar decision follows an announcement earlier this week from the Department of the Interior that 10,000 megawatts of solar, wind, and geothermal energy have been authorized on public lands. This meets a goal for the agency laid out by Congress in 2005 of approving 10,000 megawatts of non-hydro renewable energy on public lands by 2015, which was echoed by President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Now that federal land management agencies have met their megawatt goal and completed this seminal plan for solar energy, they will need to determine what the next steps in the process will be. It remains to be seen how well the new framework for solar energy development works, particularly whether or not it encourages more developers to look to federal lands for opportunities. In addition, the process for establishing new zones has yet to be tested.

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The Center for American Progress has called on the agencies to institute a new goal of ensuring that 35 percent of the electricity from resources from public lands and waters is renewable by 2035. Currently, 66 percent of the resources from public lands used for electricity are from coal, while only 1 percent is from wind, solar, and geothermal combined. Establishing a “clean resources standard” will help bring coal and renewable energy sourced from public lands back into balance and continue to help us transition the use of our lands for energy development from fossil to clean.

Jessica is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.