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Exploring the West- Seeking Out Top Places for Solar Energy Projects

Photo courtsy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Surveying the West for suitable public lands to build utility-scale solar energy facilities is the latest initiative by the U.S. Department of the Interior in its efforts to move the country in the direction of renewable energy.

The initiative is part of the Obama administration’s New Energy Plan for America, which includes the goal to “ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.”

Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior, told a Las Vegas audience on Monday, “This environmentally-sensitive plan will identify appropriate Interior-managed lands that have excellent solar energy potential and limited conflict with wildlife, and other natural resources or land use. The two dozen areas we are evaluating could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.”

Supportive of the initiative, Helen O’Shea, a policy associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “Looking for the least conflict areas for solar development is the right place to start and can put America on the right path to addressing the climate crisis while protecting our natural heritage and creating much needed jobs.”

As part of the initiative, 24 tracts of Bureau of Land Management- administered land in six states- Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah- will be designated as Solar Energy Study Areas.

These locations were selected based on their potential for high solar energy and low resource conflicts. In addition, the selections were based on ongoing state/regional studies, including California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative and the Western Governors’ Association’s Western Renewable Energy Zones and Transmission Study.

For land to be used as part of the initiative, according to the Interior, it must also meet criteria including:

  • having excellent solar resources (greater than 6.5 solar insolation- a measure of solar radiation energy received on a given surface area in a specified timeframe.)
  • being in close proximity to existing roads, transmission lines, or a designated corridor.
  • containing at least 2,000 acres of Bureau-administered lands.

The opening up for these lands has generated a lot of interest from private companies facilitating renewable energy. The Bureau has currently received about 470 applications for renewable energy projects, 158 of which are for active solar applications.

Right now, the Bureau will begin site-specific environmental reviews for two major projects in Nevada that will have a combined capacity of more than 400 megawatts of electricity- the NextLight Silver State South array which is expected to produce 267 megawatts, and the NextLight Silver State North array which is expected to produce about 140 megawatts.

In addition, the Interior has said that it will continue to work with the Western Governors’ Association on the development of renewable energy zones and transmission corridors.

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