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US Interior Secretary Outlines Solar Energy Zones In US West

Dow Jones & Company, Inc. - Jun 29

Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday announced measures he said would expedite solar energy projects on federal lands.

Although hundreds of solar plant projects have applied for leases, none have been approved, and the fast-track effort was applauded by the industry.

Salazar has made expanding renewable energy leasing on federal property a top priority, and the announcement should help to clear the bottlenecked permitting program.

One of the key initiatives proposes solar energy zones on federal lands in the Western U.S. Other measures include opening new solar energy permitting offices and accelerating reviews of industry proposals.

Environmental advocacy groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, have been working with the government to balance regional environmental concerns on land conservation with a federal goal of expanding renewable energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions thought to contribute to climate change.

"This environmentally sensitive plan will identify appropriate Interior- managed lands that have excellent solar energy potential and limited conflicts with wildlife, other natural resources or land users," Salazar said.

He said the two dozen areas being evaluated by the Interior Department could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

"With coordinated environmental studies, good land-use planning and zoning and priority processing, we can accelerate responsible solar energy production that will help build a clean-energy economy for the 21st century," Salazar said.

Many solar projects have been blocked at the local level, putting at risk the Obama administration's plan to double renewable energy production by 2012. For example, in March, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote to Salazar vowing to fight against the construction of a solar project on 600,000 acres of federal land between the Mojave desert preserve and the Joshua Tree National Park. The area lies in a state-designated renewable zone where companies have applied to establish hundreds of solar projects.

Because the solar projects are large-scale commercial activities, often requiring exclusive use of federal lands and official land use changes, the environmental assessments and public comment processes are lengthy exercises, Interior Department officials said.

Establishing solar energy zones would expedite the permitting and environmental assessment processes, describing low-conflict areas of natural resources that aren't located in proximity to wilderness areas or threatened species, said Serena Ingre, an NRDC spokeswoman.

Under Interior's proposal, the department will provide landscape-scale planning and zoning across two dozen tracts of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management in six western states for solar projects. The zones will lie in Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

That, said the Interior Department, would allow a more efficient process for permitting and siting responsible solar development.

Companies such as First Solar (FSLR), Stirling Energy Systems, Brightsource Energy, Solel, Solar Millennium (S2M.XE), FPL Group (FPL) and PG&E (PCG) are awaiting project permit approvals.

The department also said it was beginning site-specific environmental reviews for the two Nextlight Silver State arrays in Nevada, totaling 400 MW in generating capacity.

The Bureau of Land Management hasn't issued any land-use permits for any solar power plants. Just two solar power plants have moved to the BLM's final review stage: Stirling Energy Systems' request to use 7,000 acres in Imperial County, Calif., for a 750 MW solar-power plant; and BrightSource Energy Inc.'s request to build a 400 MW solar-power plant on 6,720 acres of public land in Kern County, Calif., according to the BLM.

The Interior Department said it wouldn't complete the solar energy study zones until 2010.

-By Ian Talley, Dow Jones Newswires, 202-862-9285; ian.talley@dowjones.com

(Cassandra Sweet contributed to this report.)