The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) recently announced a comprehensive environmental analysis that identifies proposed “solar energy zones” on public land in six western states. Land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah that are most suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production are the focus of the joint announcement.

“This analysis will help renewable-energy companies and federal agencies focus development on areas of our public lands that are best suited for large-scale solar development,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “Our early ‘Smart from the Start’ planning will help us site solar projects in the right places and reduce conflicts and delays at later stages of the development process.”

Under the study’s preferred alternative, DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would establish a new solar energy program that would standardize and streamline the authorization process and would establish mandatory design features for solar energy development on BLM land. The BLM would establish solar energy zones within the land available for solar development right-of-way applications. These have been identified as most appropriate for development, containing the highest solar energy potential and fewest environmental and resource conflicts. The solar energy zones would provide directed, landscape-scale planning for future solar projects and would allow for a more efficient permitting and siting process. The initiative stems from a June 2009 DOI announcement that tracts of BLM land in the six states, known as solar energy study areas, would be fully evaluated for their environmental and resource suitability for large-scale solar energy production.

Much of the BLM-managed 120 million acres of public land in the six states would be excluded from solar energy production, leaving about 22 million acres available for right-of-way applications under the preferred alternative. That includes some 677,400 acres identified as proposed solar energy zones. However, reasonably foreseeable solar energy development is anticipated on only about 214,000 acres of the suitable and appropriate BLM land. The BLM’s current solar energy caseload includes 104 active solar applications, covering 1 million acres that developers estimate could generate 60,000 megawatts of electricity.