By Katee Kline, Legal Intern
On July 24, the Department of the Interior released a final programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) identifying prime areas for solar development, approving seventeen large-scale energy projects on public lands, and outlining the procedure for approval of similar projects. The PEIS, authored by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy, should allow for faster permitting of large-scale solar energy projects and is hailed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as a “key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades.”1
This comprehensive plan to facilitate solar development is part of President Obama’s energy policy, which focuses largely on obtaining energy from domestic sources. The seventeen already-approved projects are expected to produce nearly 6,000 MW of electricity, and the projected development of BLM-administered lands addressed in the PEIS is expected to produce about 24,000 MW over the next twenty years. 6,000 MW is enough electricity to power roughly 1.8 million homes; 24,000 is enough to power seven million.
The PEIS addressed the six southwestern states of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Part of the study consisted of mapping these states into zones based on their solar development potential; factors considered include availability of solar resources, transmission potential, and likely conflict of development with an area’s biological, cultural, and historical resources. 285,000 acres are designated as priority areas for development; this land includes the seventeen greenlighted projects. Development will be allowed on roughly 19 million additional acres. A majority of the land surveyed, more than 78 million acres, will be closed for solar development based on a balancing of the above factors, though the Department of the Interior announced that it will reassess the need for additional solar energy zones every five years, at minimum.
Solar energy development projected to result from this PEIS should be valuable in helping to reach our national clean energy goals and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Though implementation of the solar projects will result in a temporary adverse effect on local air quality, the DOI claims, “overall, CO2 emissions could be reduced if solar energy production avoids fossil fuel energy production…. If the pace of solar energy development is faster as a result of DOE’s proposed action, the potential beneficial impacts of reduced GHG emissions would be realized at a faster rate.”2 Advocates of solar energy and environmental protection have reacted favorably to the DOI’s plan.
2 Department of the Interior, Final PSEIS, pp 26, 43.