Renewable energy: US takes new tack with 'solar energy zones'

Renewable energy road map establishes 17 solar energy zones in six western states. New tack is supposed to spur renewable energy development on federal lands, but some developers remain skeptical.

Julie Jacobson/AP
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a news conference, Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, in Las Vegas, in which he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a plan that sets aside 285,000 acres of public land for the development of large-scale solar power plants. The government is establishing 17 new "solar energy zones" on 285,000 acres in six states to spur renewable energy development on federal land. Most of the land is in Southern California.

The United States finally has a road map for developing solar energy on federal land in the West.

The big idea: Seventeen solar-energy zones – about 285,000 acres of public lands in six western states – have been set aside as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development. That way, instead of approving such large renewable energy projects on a case-by-case basis where developers want to build them, the energy zones will guide development to areas that are high in solar energy, close to transmission lines, and have, in the Interior Department's words, "relatively low conflict with biological, cultural, and historic resources."

The road map also excludes 79 million acres of federal land as being inappropriate for development and another 19 million acres as "variance" areas where the government would continue to decide solar projects case by case. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar finalized the roadmap at a signing Friday. The six states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

Will the new zones work? Since 2009, the Interior Department has authorized 18 utility-scale solar projects on federal lands (as well as seven wind farms and eight geothermal plants). When built, these renewable energy projects are expected to generate 10,000 megawatts of renewable power – President Obama's goal – enough electricity to power 3.5 million homes.

The new zones are supposed to simplify and speed up the approval process for renewable energy projects. Conservation groups have applauded the effort.

Still, some developers are skeptical that the process will eliminate the delays that have hampered previous projects.

"The Bureau of Land Management must ensure pending projects do not get bogged down in more bureaucratic processes," Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, told the Associated Press.

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