With all of the talk in government circles about the possibilities of renewable power, it makes sense that the focus should be on developing those resources in the nation’s Western states, where the potential is arguably the greatest.

Recognizing that need, state and federal officials have teamed up to kick start the process. Earlier this summer, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) announced a package of initiatives. The programs involve collaboration with Western leaders to accomplish a number of goals, including designation of tracts of U.S. public lands in the West as prime zones for utility-scale solar energy development, funding of environmental studies, opening of new solar energy permitting offices, and accelerated reviews of industry proposals.

Under one initiative, 24 tracts of land located in six Western states administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and known as Solar Energy Study Areas, would be fully evaluated for large-scale solar energy production. The objective is to provide landscape-scale planning and zoning for projects, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and siting. According to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the two dozen areas under evaluation could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

The DOI also announced the opening of a new renewable energy coordination office (RECO) in Nevada—the first of four—with the others located in Arizona, California and Wyoming. The offices will help to expedite processing of the increased number of applications for renewable-energy projects on U.S. lands. Currently, BLM has received about 470 renewable-energy project applications. Those include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres, with a projected capacity to generate 97,000 megawatts of electricity.

The DOI also is coordinating with states to expedite permitting for a number of solar power projects nearing approval. The BLM will begin site-specific environmental reviews for two major projects in Nevada that would have a combined capacity of more than 400 megawatts of electricity.

An ongoing federally funded environmental evaluation of potential solar energy development on public lands in six Western states, known as the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, will also be expanded to include an in-depth analysis of the potential impacts of utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in the 24 Solar Energy Study Areas. This enhancement will be supported by additional federal funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In addition to the DOI initiatives, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has also teamed up with the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) to release a joint report that takes the first steps toward identifying areas in the Western Interconnection that have both the potential for large-scale development of renewable resources and low environmental impacts. The report marks the culmination of a year’s worth of collaboration.

In May 2008, the Western Governors’ Association and DOE launched the Western Renewable Energy Zones (WREZ) initiative to identify those areas with vast renewable resources to expedite the development and delivery of renewable energy to where it is needed. Under the initiative, renewable-energy resources are being analyzed within 11 states, two Canadian provinces, and areas in Mexico that are part of the Western Interconnection.

The document, “Western Renewable Energy Zones—Phase 1 Report,” summarizes the results of this collaboration, and it provides a map that shows the most promising areas for development.

Participants in the WREZ process included renewable-energy developers, tribal interests, utility planners, environmental groups and government policymakers. The WGA will continue to work with stakeholders during three future phases of the initiative.

For example, the governors will partner with utilities and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council to evaluate transmission needs to move power from preferred renewable-energy zones. They will work to improve the integration of wildlife and environmental values in decisions on the development of generation and transmission associated with these renewable-energy zones. Stakeholders have also agreed to work with WGA to coordinate purchasing from the desirable renewable-energy zones to demand centers and to coordinate interstate cooperation for renewable-energy generation and transmission.