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BLM gets array of input on solar-farms siting


Solar energy may be clean and green, but it requires electrical transmission lines, uses water and takes up land that provides habitat for plants and animals.

At a hearing in Tucson Tuesday night, some speakers praised the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for proceeding cautiously in siting utility-scale solar farms proposed for 1 million acres of public land nationwide.

Daniel Patterson, southwest director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, urged the BLM to locate the solar sites on already degraded land close to existing utility corridors. He also urged it to monitor the use of water.

Patterson and Eva Sargent of Defenders of Wildlife both suggested that it might be better to direct a needed expansion of solar power to existing rooftops in developed areas.

Other speakers, however, urged the BLM and its partner, the Department of Energy, to quickly approve applications for large-scale solar.

"Look at the big picture and not the bugs and the plants," said Tucsonan Bruce Marcotte, who described himself as a Navy veteran concerned that Americans were in harm's way in defense of oil interests.

"I'm amazed we're having to have this meeting this late in my lifetime," said Donald Tribble, who said solar power should have been developed decades ago."

"I don't understand why it takes two years," he said of the BLM's plans to complete its environmental process by spring of 2010.

In May, the BLM announced that it was putting together a joint programmatic Environmental Impact Statement with the Department of Energy.

The process will "assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on BLM-managed public land in six western States: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah," according to a bureau news release.

At that time, the BLM said it would stop accepting applications for large-scale solar projects on land it manages in the West until that process was completed.

The BLM reversed its decision early this month after Congress and the solar industry complained that it would stall expansion of solar power.

The bureau's project director, Linda Resseguie, said that means many of the proposals already submitted may gain approval through individual National Environmental Policy Act review before those guidelines are written.

The BLM had already received 130 applications for large-scale photovoltaic and concentrated-solar projects on 1 million acres before announcing its moratorium.

If all the projects were built, they would potentially add 70 billion watts of power to the nation's electrical grid, capable of supporting the electric needs of 20 million homes.

In Arizona, eight solar companies or investment groups have proposed 27 solar projects on BLM land, capable of generating more than 12 billion watts of power. Most of the projects envision using parabolic-trough technology, which focuses the sun's rays to heat a fluid that powers electricity-producing turbines.

The one Southern Arizona project, proposed on BLM land just south of Eloy, is the only one that would use photovoltaic panels, which transform the sun's light into electricity.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who has championed solar power during her first term in Congress, did not attend the meeting, but her district director, Ron Barber, read a statement thanking the BLM for proceeding carefully with its review.

"I support the siting of solar arrays on public land so long as it is done carefully and with close attention to environmental impacts and other important considerations," Giffords' statement said.

She also urged speed in the process, citing the environmental harm caused each day by our nation's "carbon footprint."

Delay, she said "could actually result in greater environmental impacts than would otherwise occur." On Starnet: Find a full listing of the solar projects proposed for BLM land in Arizona at go.azstarnet.com/solarfarms


Click here for a PDF of the projects

--Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.

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